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Districts Scramble To Cope With Student Expulsions

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For many state lawmakers, passing bills making it easier to expel gun-toting students was no trouble. But finding a place to give the troublemakers a second chance is proving to be a tough job for local school officials.

The 1994 federal gun-free-schools law directed states to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy on weapons at school or risk losing federal funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. All 50 states have now passed legislation that complies with the federal law, said William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's safe- and drug-free-schools program.

Educators still back the idea of cracking down on students who bring weapons to school or become serious discipline problems. But some district leaders say the get-tough security rules are creating another problem: how to create alternative schools that serve a growing pool of students.

In Texas, lawmakers included strict expulsion policies as part of their 1995 rewrite of the state education code. Teachers can ask to remove problem students from their classes, and students who bring a weapon to school must be expelled with no exceptions. In many other states, zero-tolerance laws give superintendents or school boards power to alter the punishment.

"The intent of the law is right on, but the ability to deal with extenuating circumstances is not there," said Larry Guinn, the executive director for student management for the Plano, Texas, school district.

The law, Mr. Guinn said, does not distinguish between an 18-year-old who brings a weapon to school to kill someone, for example, and an elementary school student who brings a shiny object to school, barely realizing it's a knife.

Home Schooling

What is also worrisome for many educators is that there may not be enough alternative schools or programs to house all the students who are expelled from school under the new policies.

"School systems are running with their tongues out trying to catch up with the new wave of expulsions," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Only seven states--Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas--have passed laws requiring that alternative schools be created to handle the expelled young people, according to a survey by the Education Commission of the States. More often, states "encourage" districts to set up alternative schools, which many small and medium-size districts have started to do and many big districts have in place.

But in places where there are few alternative venues, some students are left with no place to go or depend on their parents to come up with a solution.

Kathy Brody is familiar with this scenario. In February, her 14-year-old son, George, was expelled from his middle school in Holly, Mich., for bringing a plastic toy gun to school and storing a kitchen knife in his locker.

The district had no alternative school or program for him to attend, according to Ms. Brody, so the 8th grader spent the next five months at home with his grandparents taking a correspondence course. The teenager was allowed to return to school last month after he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to an alternative placement, state officials said.

Enough Funds?

But even in states with mandates that alternative schools or programs be made available to students, some local educators say the efforts are half-hearted.

In Nebraska, for example, the state law requires that districts set up alternative schools to serve students who are barred from regular schools. But the state has provided no funding for construction costs.

As a result, many of the state's tiny rural districts are having to pool their resources to build regional alternative schools.

"School districts aren't too happy because funding [alternative schools] means taking away from normal programs, and they don't have unlimited means," said Jack Gilsdorf, a spokesman for the Nebraska education department. In Nebraska, districts are in a pinch without the issue of new alternative schools after a property-tax limit passed by lawmakers hampered local fund-raising abilities.

"Its a double whammy--the state gave them more to do and less money to do it with," Mr. Gilsdorf said.

Even in states where funding for alternative schools is provided, some school officials are concerned that there isn't enough to go around.

As in Nebraska, each district in Texas is required to have an alternative program or school for students who are expelled under the zero-tolerance law. The state has set aside $18 million to defray the start-up costs of establishing the alternative programs.

But Jane Backus, the director of governmental relations for the Texas School Boards Association, said the state has not allocated funding for the maintenance of the facilities and operating costs.

Billy G. Jacobs, the director of school safety for the Texas Education Agency, said last week that the agency plans to recommend additional funding in January.

Still, Mr. Jacobs added, despite the troubles in serving expelled students, there is a payoff in moving them out of public school classrooms.

"We have to give teachers the ability to control their classrooms," he said.

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