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Drug-Aid Plan Unfair, New York Religious Schools Argue

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Catholic and Hebrew day schools in New York City have filed appeals with the state commissioner of education challenging city school officials' refusal to provide on-site anti-drug counseling for their students.

In their application for funds under the Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986, the city board of education offered to provide counseling for religious-school students at a neutral site, saying that on-site services are prohibited under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1985 decision in Aguilar v. Felton.

In Felton, the Court ruled that the city school board could not use federal compensatory-education funds to place remedial teachers in religious schools because such situations create a constitutionally impermissible entanglement of church and state.

State and federal officials have advised the city school board that the Felton ruling does not apply to the federal drug-free schools program. But the board chose to follow the advice of the city's lawyer, who said that providing on-site services would violate Felton.

Representatives of the religious schools, however, argue that providing counseling services for their students at a neutral site is not equitable because public-school students receive the same services without leaving their building.

"The whole idea of the counseling-assistance program is to have people on site to work with the youngsters and the teachers who come into contact with students who might be at-risk for drug use," said Sally Ann Shields, executive director of the Archdiocese of New York's drug-abuse prevention program.

Because of delays in both the state's and the city's applications for the grants, New York City has only recently received its share of drug-education aid for the 1987-88 school year.

A variety of state and federal officials, including Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, have criticized city school officials for failing to apply for last year's funds until last month, 14 months after the applications became available.

"It's a matter of disbelief that any school system in the midst of a drug crisis could sit on their application for 14 months," said Ms. Shields.

Because the city's public schools receive drug-abuse-prevention funding from other sources, she noted, the delay in applying for federal funds has not significantly affected services for public-school students.

The nonpublic schools, on the other hand, could not receive theirel10lshare of the federal funding until the city filed its application, Ms. Shields said. The city's nonpublic schools stand to receive $574,878 under the program for the 1987-88 school year, and $739,035 for 1988-89.

"We've already lost a year now when we could have been providing services," she said. "If we're limited again, our youngsters will be deprived further of school-based services."

City school officials counter that the applicability of Felton to the drug program has not been decided by the courts. They say they are standing by the advice of the city's lawyer until directed to do otherwise by the proper authorities.

The city's nonpublic schools had previously agreed to accept last year's share of the funds in the form offered by the school board, which included staff training and curricu4lar materials and supplies.

But the city's application for funding this year "was filed without the nonpublic schools seeing it or agreeing to it," Ms. Shields charged.

In its letter to the state education commissioner, the Archdiocese of New York requested that the funds earmaked for its schools be "administered directly through the state department of education or through some other such arrangement which would ensure that our students receive the services they so need."

Such "bypass" arrangements have been used in other areas where local school officials have been unwilling or unable to provide equitable services under federal programs to private-school students.

Such an arrangement, however, would first have to be investigated by the U.S. Education Department, a process that could cause considerable delays in the disbursement of funds to religious schools, according to federal officials.

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