Officials Call Gun Report Proof of Crackdown
Federal education officials say a report showing that 6,093 students were expelled last school year for bringing firearms to campus provides proof that schools are cracking down on such offenses.
But school safety experts--and the report itself--say the number of expulsions in the nation's schools is likely higher than the figure reported in the U.S. Department of Education survey.
The department's state-by-state survey is the first tally of expulsions since Congress passed the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. The act requires states, as a condition of receiving federal elementary and secondary education funding, to put in place laws under which students who bring guns to school are expelled for at least one year. All states are currently in compliance.
"This report is a clear indication that our nation's public schools are cracking down on students who bring guns to school," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement following the report's release May 8. "We need to do everything possible to keep our children safe."
Across the country, the report found that a majority--58 percent--of weapons-related expulsions in the 1996-97 school year were for bringing handguns to school.
Seven percent of the expulsions involved rifles, and 35 percent were for carrying another type of firearm, such as a bomb, hand grenade, or starter pistol.
The majority of expulsions, about 56 percent, were in high schools. Junior high schools accounted for roughly 34 percent of expulsions, and the remainder occurred in elementary schools.
The department had no comparative data to show whether the number of weapons-related expulsions had increased from previous years.
Rates of expulsions for weapons possession varied widely from state to state. But several states provided incomplete data, and definitions of weapons changed depending on the state. Those factors make comparisons among the states difficult, the report says.
Colorado showed the highest rate, 6.5 expulsions per 1,000 students, while three states--Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Wyoming--reported no expulsions. Other states reporting low expulsion rates include Connecticut, Minnesota, Mississippi, and North Dakota.
Under the federal mandate, individual districts were allowed to modify the one-year-expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis. And administrators nationwide took advantage of that flexibility. Though students who brought weapons to campus were shown the schoolhouse door, one-third of them were allowed to return in less than a year, the report says.
Many of the students who were expelled had no other place to go for their schooling. The survey found that only 56 percent of students expelled under the law were referred to alternative placements.
The report notes that many states have too few alternative schools to accommodate the number of expelled students.
Many educators who applaud the federal mandatory-expulsion policy argue that expelled students ought to have an alternative place to go to continue their educations.
"In school district budgets, there's a feeling that alternative programs are an extra. They are anything but," said Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.
"Students whose behavior precludes them from being in a regular class would be better served in a alternative classroom than out of school altogether," Ms. Lose said.
Because of differences in state laws and reporting techniques, the number of expulsions for weapons possession is likely to be greater than the department's statistics show, the report acknowledges.
Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said the figures may also be low because many crimes are underreported at schools.
"One of the real questions in a report like this is 'How reflective is it of reality?'" Mr. Stephens said last week. "We still have a number of districts that are reluctant to report crimes because it makes them look bad."
Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 3