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Los Angeles Task Force Urges Stiff Expulsion Policy

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A new report on crime and violence in the Los Angeles schools has called for sweeping changes in the district's discipline policies, including a major increase in the use of expulsion for students found to have committed serious offenses.

Despite the district's existing expulsion policies, the report said, very few of the students who were caught with dangerous weapons in school in 1988-89 were forced out of the system for an extended period.

The report by a panel of parents and local officials accuses the city school board of virtually ignoring the problem of weapons and violence on campuses, which, it states, "is rapidly becoming a way of life for our youth."

"The potential for murder is real" in the public schools, the task force argued.

The issue of school violence has become a top priority for school officials in light of the growing level of gang-related violence in the city, where in 1989 an average of one youth between the ages of 10 and 19 was murdered every day.

Part of the report was presented to the board last month by the 65-member task force, which was formed last March in the wake of the stabbing of a junior-high-school teacher by a student during class.

The report's controversial conclusions so far have met with a cool response from board members. David B. Michels, a parent of a public-school student and a member of the task force, said the presentation of the report was "cut short" last month "because board members did not like what they were hearing."

The rest of the report's recommendations are scheduled to be heard by the board April 16. Task-force members expect "a lively, and at times, bitter" debate, Mr. Michels said.

In addition to the discipline proposals, the report offers detailed recommendations on establishing a K-12 "life-survival skills" curriculum and improving the district's security plan. But the controversy is focused on the discipline issue.

Los Angeles's debate on youth crime, district officials said, reflects an increasingly common philosophical conflict throughout the nation between the more punitive approach of the juvenile-justice system and the emphasis on rehabilitation advocated by many educators.

'Straight' Expulsion Advocated

The task force recommended an overhaul of the district's discipline procedures, including a stricter "straight" expulsion policy for students caught with a firearm or involved in a serious assault.

Under the current straight-expulsion policy, students may be removed from the school system for up to a year, with the right of appeal.

The report charges that district officials have in practice been unwilling to use straight expulsion. Instead, the report indicates, administrators have tended to move students found guilty of offenses to other schools, or to place them in the district's several alternative-school options.

The report cites school-district police figures showing that there were 438 cases last year in which a student was caught with a weapon in school and referred for expulsion.

Of those, the report states, only 15 resulted in straight expulsions. Another 147 students remained in the regular school program, while the rest were sent to alternative schools.

The infrequent use of outright explusion shows that the school system "is overly concerned with the welfare of its violent offenders and has, consequently, placed the safety of other students and staff in serious jeopardy," the report contends.

Donald Bolton, administrator of the district's student-attendance-services division, said that district records show that, of the 438 students recommended for expulsion for weapons offenses, 22 received straight expulsion.

But Mr. Bolton agreed that district officials have been reluctant to recommend straight expulsion. "Those students end up on the8streets, and they are not likely to ever return to school," he said.

Efforts to avoid forcing such troubled students out of school "has given the district the appearance of being soft on crime," he conceded.

A National Trend?

Although no organization tracks district discipline policies, national experts say there is a definite trend across the country toward stiffer expulsion penalties. Among the most common are automatic-expulsion policies, which clearly designate certain offenses--most often, bringing a weapon to school or assault--as grounds for removal from the schools.

Supporters of that trend, such as Mr. Michels in Los Angeles, argue that "you've got to send a message to these kids that such behavior will not be tolerated by our schools."

But evidence shows that, despite such policies, students may still avoid expulsion.

In Detroit, for example, school-board members last month questioned a three-year-old expulsion policy for students who bring guns to school.

Board members criticized enforcement of the policy after discovering that, of 101 students caught with firearms last year, one-third remained in a regular school program. Twenty-seven of the students were transferred to another school, while seven were suspended for up to five days and then returned to theiroriginal school.

District officials had vowed in April 1987 that such students would not be readmitted to regular classrooms, after the fatal shooting of a high-school athlete in school.

Court Protection Sought

In Madison, Wis., meanwhile, school-board members are working on tightening their existing policy, under which no student has been expelled in the past 25 years.

The board's efforts follow pressure from the city teachers' union, which has gone to court to obtain injunctions to protect teachers from students who had threatened their lives.

John A. Matthews, executive director of the Madison Teachers Inc., said local courts granted three injunctions over the past year prohibiting potentially dangerous students from coming into contact with certain teachers.

Mr. Matthews argued that the step was necessary because the district had refused to take action against such students.

"We've been operating under this idea that we are an upper-middle-class utopian society," he said.

"There has been rapid urbanization here that the district has not kept up with," he added. "We're seeing a much different kind of student in Madison."

Shirley W. Baum, assistant superintendent for secondary education, agreed that the existing expulsion policy was unwieldly and ineffective. "It was impossible to jump through every hoop," she said.

Board members last month adopted a new policy against weapons, which allows for expulsion after only one incident. Previously, the district had to prove that a student had a history of problems with weapons before moving to expel him or her.

The board is expected to consider further policy changes this week.

Out on the Streets

But critics of tougher expulsion policies cite several concerns. A disproportionate number of minority students are expelled under such policies, they note, and few districts offer alternative-education options.

Moreover, even such advocates of tougher policies as Mr. Matthews voice qualms about "sending such students out on the streets."

"People who support such policies often don't understand that if you re8move a child from the school, it doesn't mean you've removed him from the community," added Richard Gray, a spokesman for the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students. "He'll still appear on campus to cause trouble."

Mr. Gray believes that, while schools should not keep dangerous students in regular programs, they should provide alternatives.

Although Los Angeles has several alternative-school options, they are inadequate, the task force said.

More Alternatives Urged

The panel's report calls for the creation of new alternative-school options for students who are in the process of being expelled or suspended.

Under the plan, 20 separate "opportunity schools" would be set up at the junior-high and high-school level10lel throughout the district--but away from regular school sites.

The report also urges establishment of eight "transition centers" for students who are on parole for weapons offenses, returning from the juvenile-justice system, or returning from straight expulsion.

Both the opportunity schools and the transition centers would be staffed with psychologists, counselors, nurses, school police, and special-education teachers.

The report also calls for the elimination of the district's practice of allowing students with disciplinary problems to make "opportunity transfers" to other schools.

The task force found that 11,221 students were given such transfers in 1988-89. Of those, 2,695 were transferred for "continued and willful disobedience," and another 1,055 were shifted for having committed an act of physical violence.

"Such transfers do not address many students' problems," the report says. "Instead, [they] shuffle the problems and place other students and staff in the new schools in jeopardy."

Task-force members admitted that many of the report's proposals would be difficult to implement, given the expected $230 million that must be cut from the district's $4-billion budget in the coming fiscal year.

Alfred S. Moore, assistant superintendent for school-support services and coordinator of the task force, said the district may be forced to hold off on the task force's more costly proposals for some time.

"But we're looking seven to 10 years down the road on this," he said. "This is not something that can be addressed overnight."

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