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Violence-Ridden District Weighing Burial Insurance for Students

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The school board in violence-ridden East Palo Alto, Calif., is expected to decide this week whether to explore the possibility of providing poor students with free accident and term life-insurance coverage that could include a benefit covering burial expenses.

The proposal, made by Charlie Mae Knight, the superintendent of the Ravenswood City Elementary School District, which includes East Palo Alto, is in response to the needs of the many poor, uninsured children in the district who are at risk of injury or death from violence or accident, Ms. Knight said.

"We are living in times that require us to do some things that are rather unorthodox,'' she said last week.

East Palo Alto, which had 42 murders among its 23,350 residents last year, has the highest per-capita murder rate in the country, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But Ms. Knight said her idea predated the city's receiving that dubious distinction.

Last year, she said, five district students died: Two were victims of drive-by shootings, and three died from accidents, disease, or other causes.

Under the proposal, the 4,200-student, K-8 district would be the group through which the insurance would be purchased. Insurance typically is less expensive when purchased through a group than when purchased by an individual.

The cost of paying the students' insurance premiums would be shouldered by private donors, not by the school district, officials said.

A Novel Plan

National experts said they had never heard of a similar plan.

School officials said the insurance could be a 24-hour expansion of the type of insurance that districts often carry for student-athletes to cover any sports-related injuries.

One estimate provided to the district put the annual cost of 24-hour accident medical coverage at $36.80 per student, or a total of $154,560. Term life insurance could run an additional $15 per student per year, for an annual cost of $63,000, the insurance brokerage said.

Ms. Knight said she wants insurance that covers children as they walk to and from school "because that's when most of the fights happen.'' If a child suffered a broken nose or jaw, she said, many parents probably could not afford to pay the medical costs.

A death benefit could also assist the families of victims of more serious violence. "If [students are] killed in a drive-by shooting ... at least they could be buried with some dignity,'' Ms. Knight said.

Many Ravenswood students, she said, are from low-income families: 76 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal school-lunch program.

Another 25 percent are undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico.

"Any kind of insurance would be a luxury for these children,'' Ms. Knight said.

In the past, when children of poor parents have died, collections have been solicited from district employees and others.

Fund-Raising Optimism

Ms. Knight said she has received numerous pledges from potential donors and is optimistic about raising the funds needed to pay the premiums for all 4,200 students.

If the Ravenswood board approves the idea, it would give Ms. Knight a preliminary go-ahead to explore ways of enacting it, the board's president, Bomani Siwatu, said.

"We need to understand exactly what the impact is going to be'' for the district and whether there are any potential liabilities, Mr. Siwatu said.

While he admitted he was not sure the district could handle the task of obtaining insurance for the children, Mr. Siwatu said, "I'm absolutely sure too many students are uninsured.''

He said he was primarily concerned that a $5,000 burial for one child in a family with an income of $20,000, for example, would create financial hardship that would seriously affect any remaining children.

"If we can provide a cheap, humane method of dealing with this, then it's something that makes sense,'' as long as the district does not bear the cost, he said.

"You can't have a district that's supposed to be handling education then get off on all the other problems,'' Mr. Siwatu said.

However, Ms. Knight said, "If it is an identified need, somebody ought to address it.''

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