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Clinton Gives Symbolic Lift to Gun-Free Provision

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Washington

At a recent campaign rally, President Clinton directed the Education Department to "vigorously enforce" the gun-free-schools provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which he signed into law last month.

The provision denies federal funds to states and districts that fail to adopt policies requiring schools to expel students for one year if they are caught bringing a gun to school. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1994.)

In an Oct. 21 speech to students at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., the President said his "executive order" would help alleviate the "atmosphere of fear" that pervades many American schools.

But White House officials acknowledged last week that Mr. Clinton actually signed a memorandum that, unlike an executive order, does not have the force of law.

Some observers say that signing the document in a public ceremony was a thinly veiled attempt to score political points--and specifically to drum up support for the campaign of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.. Ms. Feinstein, who is in a tight re-election race, was the sponsor of the gun-free-schools provision.

Several media outlets reported after the speech that the President's "executive order" would somehow strengthen a provision that had been watered down by lawmakers.

'Campaign Fever'

"Clinton must have been seized with campaign fever," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "He is making remarks at a political rally for political purposes and misstated the case."

Bruce Reed, a White House domestic-policy adviser, acknowledged that the President may have misspoken.

"He was thinking generically, not legally," Mr. Reed said last week, adding that the directive "was meant to underscore the importance that the President attaches to this provision."

While education observers agreed that the President's memorandum will not have any practical effect, they said that the document--written on White House stationery and adressed to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley--does have symbolic significance.

"It raises the issue of ridding weapons from school to a Presidential priority," said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. "Before it wasn't raised to that level."

As Mr. Clinton spotlighted the issue last week, Education Department officials were busy trying to clarify the gun provision and develop guidelines for enforcing it.

The law requires states to adopt an expulsion policy within a year. Districts must state that they are in compliance with the state laws in their applications for federal E.S.E.A. money.

But officials said the law does not specify which federal education funds are to be withheld from states and districts that do not comply. Given its wording and its place in the legislation, they said, it could apply to all E.S.E.A. funds or only Title I.

Clarifying the Law

The Education Department must also determine how long students should be removed from classes--whether "one year" means a calendar or a school year--and whether a single district that failed to comply would threaten the state's funding.

The law also specifies that the required state laws must allow schools superintendents to alter the state's expulsion policy on a case-by-case basis. Department officials said they would suggest alternatives for administrators reluctant to expel every offender.

"This law doesn't mean that we think these students should be sent onto the streets for a year," said William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach for the Education Department. "But it's clear that we have to send a message that guns are not going to be tolerated in schools."

As many as 135,000 students bring guns to school every day, Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., estimated. In a recent study, the center reported that 70 percent of the 45 deaths that occurred on school grounds last year involved firearms.

But Mr. Stephens and some education lobbyists contend that the the federal law is unnecessary because the majority of states already require expulsion of gun-toting students.

"We are concerned about youth violence and the availability of weapons to kids," said Mr. Hunter. "But everybody who needs one of these policies already has one. This law is superfluous."

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