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Moved by Public, States Seek To Curb Youth Violence

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Responding both to the gravity of the problem and to a growing public outcry, an increasing number of states are taking action to curb youth violence.

Although it in the past has usually been viewed as the responsibility of local officials, the issue of children carrying guns and committing violence in school or on the streets has moved to the top of states' agendas, with three governors calling special legislative sessions to enact new laws and a number of states creating state-level task forces.

The latest such effort is by Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida, who next week will open a special session of the legislature to address, as one of its issues, gun control for juveniles.

Governor Chiles called for the special session shortly after national attention focused on the murder of a British tourist at a highway rest stop in his state, allegedly by a group of youths ages 13 to 16.

Juvenile crime "is widely recognized [as] the greatest single crime problem in America today,'' Mr. Chiles said.

Lawmakers in both Colorado and Utah, meanwhile, outlawed handgun possession for those under age 18 in their recent special sessions. (See Education Week, Sept. 15 and Oct. 20, 1993.)

"In the regular four-month legislative session, issues tend to get lost,'' Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last week. "[Colorado's] special session put a glaring spotlight on juvenile violence.''

In addition to the ban on guns, Mr. Romer also signed into law nine other bills relating to juvenile violence. They include measures to stiffen the prison sentences for juveniles guilty of violent crimes and to require parents to appear in court with their children.

Mandatory Sentences Ordered

One goal of the Florida special session, said John Fuller, a policy coordinator for Governor Chiles, is to make it a crime for a minor to possess a firearm.

Mr. Fuller noted, however, that Florida would probably not include a provision in the Colorado handgun law that mandates a five-day jail sentence for a first-time offender.

A mandatory sentence for a status offense--an act that is a crime for juveniles but not adults--runs afoul of federal juvenile-justice regulations, Mr. Fuller said.

A Colorado official conceded that the new state law violates federal guidelines, but only for the small proportion of juvenile offenders who are not charged with some other offense, such as carrying a concealed weapon or drug possession.

Other legislative responses to youth and school violence have been proposed in Massachusetts and Virginia and enacted in Oregon, which last month made it a felony to carry a firearm into a school or other public building. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993.)

In North Carolina, the legislature adopted a number of recommendations put forward by a task force of top state officials, which called for such steps as making it a crime to have a firearm on school property or for a minor to have a handgun.

Task forces appointed by the chief state school officers in Georgia and New Jersey are also currently studying the issue of violence in school.

The need for state-level involvement on youth violence is so pressing that the National Association of State Boards of Education plans next year to convene a study group to investigate the issue and make recommendations for action.

"Violence is very much a concern for our members right now,'' said Katherine Fraser, a senior associate at NASBE.

Pointing to the spate of violence statewide that prompted the Colorado special session, Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States said action on the state level occurs "when there has been so much of it that it seems all-pervasive.''

"A [school] district can't necessarily influence when students are coming from other districts with weapons,'' she said, but state officials can.

The New Jersey task force has relied on support from Commissioner of Education Mary Lee Fitzgerald and Gov. James J. Florio to be able to mobilize resources across agencies and consider policies consistent across the state's 611 school districts, said Superintendent Philip E. Geiger of the Piscataway Township schools, who heads the task force.

Mr. Geiger said his 35-member task force, which includes parents, students, educators, prosecutors, and social-service providers, is trying to make schools "a place of hope'' by ridding them of violence and vandalism without creating "throwaway kids'' who are worse off when they are kicked out of the school system.

"This would not have been possible to do on a school-district-by-school-district basis,'' he said.

State-Level Action Stressed

"The state-level involvement is extremely important,'' said George E. Butterfield, the deputy director of the National School Safety Center.

"You have the possibility of getting some very important things,'' he said, such as state funding for strategies dealing with school crime and violence and mandates for uniform reporting of school crime statewide.

Such reforms have been made in North Carolina, which recently directed local school boards to report acts of school violence to the state board of education.

North Carolina is making available $3.5 million this fall for grants to districts that come up with innovative local programs to make school safe for students and employees. In addition, it is opening a statewide resource center for the prevention of school violence, to be headed by a former high school principal.

In Georgia, Gov. Zell Miller last month proposed a comprehensive school-safety plan that would ban possession of handguns by minors, require youths between the ages of 13 and 17 who are charged with violent crimes to be tried as adults, and provide $10 million from state-lottery proceeds to local school systems for purchase of metal detectors, monitoring devices, and other safety equipment.

"I am afraid that in the not-too-distant future,'' Governor Miller said in announcing the plan, "we will know that school has started when we hear the sounds of gunshots and will measure the pace of the school year by the deaths of students.''

But as states adopt tighter restrictions and tougher penalties, Mr. Butterfield also urged that officials not ignore such factors as school climate, parent-child relationships, and crisis-intervention techniques.

"I don't see how you do that and come up with something that's really going to help you in the long run,'' he said.

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