Ashcroft’s Record Troubles Youth Advocates

By Jessica Portner — January 17, 2001 6 min read
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John D. Ashcroft, President-elect Bush’s choice for attorney general, will face opposition from more than civil rights and abortion-rights groups at his Senate confirmation hearings scheduled for this week. Some educators and juvenile- justice advocates are also critical of the Missouri Republican’s record on the issues closest to them.

What worries them most, they say, is the former U.S. senator’s history of voting to cut violence-prevention programs. They believe that Mr. Ashcroft, if he is confirmed to head the Department of Justice, might work to scale back such programs, jeopardizing efforts to prevent youth violence.

“Many people are apprehensive that the money will be cut back and that prevention funds may dry up,” said Steve Saroka, an assistant professor of health education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a consultant on school violence.

John D. Ashcroft

But other educators and juvenile-justice experts say those fears are exaggerated. They believe the incoming Bush administration will continue to support programs that work.

Still, it may be hard to match the Clinton administration’s support for violence-prevention initiatives. Last year alone, schools received more than $200 million in Justice Department grants to jump- start and nourish programs for violence prevention, after-school activities, and school safety efforts. Under President Clinton, funding for the Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention has more than tripled.

Votes Scrutinized

During his six-year term in the Senate, which ended this month after he failed to win re-election in November, Mr. Ashcroft routinely voted to eliminate funding or slash proposed increases for violence-prevention programs proposed by Democratic members.

John D. Ashcroft

Age: 58
Education: Yale University, B.A., History, 1964; University of Chicago, law degree, 1967.
Career: U.S. senator from Missouri, 1995-2001; Missouri governor, 1985-1993; Missouri attorney general, 1976-1985.
Personal: Married, with three children.

In 1998, along with many of his colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate, Mr. Ashcroft voted against an amendment to a juvenile-crime bill that would have increased funding for after-school programs, which advocates argue are an effective means of reducing youth crime. He supported an amendment to the bill that would have cut $50 million from delinquency-prevention grant programs.

During a 1997 debate on a measure to overhaul the federal juvenile- justice office—a bill that failed to become law—then-Sen. Ashcroft called the prevention programs for at-risk youths “a massive ongoing expenditure” that had done little to stop juvenile crime.

It is that kind of rhetoric that worries Betty Flad, who runs an after-school program in the 33,000-student Beaverton, Ore., school district. Ms. Flad received a $100,000 grant from the federal government last year to organize a mentoring program and hire tutors to work with elementary students after school.

Since the program received funding, the number of student referrals for disciplinary problems in the district has dropped by 50 percent, according to Ms. Flad. “If there isn’t continued funding, we are going to go backwards,” she said.

Franklin Tucker, a former director of violence-prevention programs for the 63,000-student Boston public schools, said studies have shown that many in-school and out-of-school youth programs can help reduce crime.

“If we eliminate after-school programs, the crime rate is going up, because if you don’t find constructive things for kids to do, they are going to find things that aren’t constructive to do,” he said.

But based on President-elect Bush’s statements during the campaign, it seems unlikely that the new administration would take such a step. His campaign platform supported proposals on after-school aid, including a plan to spend $400 million a year to help low-income families pay for after-school care.

Mr. Bush also called for revising the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program to allow faith-based and community groups to compete for funding, which currently is restricted to schools.

Too Harsh?

Yet it’s not only Mr. Ashcroft’s stance on prevention programs that worries some people. Many educators and school safety experts find his proposed solutions for dealing with juvenile crime unsettling, too. They point to Mr. Ashcroft’s support for allowing courts to try juveniles as adults and his comments about the need for more juvenile prisons.

As Missouri’s attorney general and then governor, Mr. Ashcroft supported construction of more prisons and tougher penalties for lawbreakers. “Ashcroft was a law-and-order governor,” Peter DeSimone, the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said last week. “The number of prisons and incarcerations increased significantly under [Mr. Ashcroft’s] watch. As U.S. attorney general, I would expect him to support pretty tough laws against juveniles or anybody.”

Don Fraser, a deputy sheriff in the Buncombe County sheriff’s office in Asheville, N.C., who received a $50,000 federal grant last year to dispatch school police to teach elementary students how to avoid gangs, argued that Mr. Ashcroft’s hard-line approach to juvenile crime is not what works.

“Prisons are reactive, and I believe in a proactive approach that puts money on the front end,” Mr. Fraser said last week. “We have already missed an opportunity once the children have made it to detention.”

School groups also expressed concern that Mr. Ashcroft, if confirmed, would try to open juvenile-arrest records. On several occasions during his Senate tenure, he proposed measures to allow schools to share data on potentially violent children, which he argued would hold students accountable for their actions and deter more criminal behavior. Indeed, Mr. Ashcroft said in a 1997 Senate speech that delinquent youths were “juvenile terrorists” who shouldn’t be coddled.

Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., worked to defeat a similar proposal of Mr. Ashcroft’s during the last reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Mr. Hunter said that opening sealed juvenile files would violate students’ privacy and be difficult to use in fair and proper ways. “There is no standard language for discipline, and I wouldn’t want student records being traded when the information wouldn’t be well-understood,” he said.

Ashcroft’s ‘Strong Record’

Taylor Gross, an aide to President-elect Bush, said last week that the attorney general-designate “has a very strong record on downgrading violence in schools.”

And while many education and youth groups are concerned about the nomination, others expressed confidence that the federal commitment to the Justice Department’s youth-related initiatives would continue.

“Regardless of ... philosophical differences, people are willing to support programs that they think make a difference,” said Jan Still-Lindeman, a spokeswoman for the Boys and Girls Club of America, based in Atlanta. The organization, which has thousands of chapters nationwide, last year received $68 million in Justice Department grants.

Furthermore, school officials like Bill Bond, a school violence consultant and the former principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky.—the site of a deadly school shooting in 1997—are feeling pretty calm. Mr. Bond said he wasn’t worried that funding for school safety programs would evaporate.

“Will it be the same as Clinton? No,” he said. “But I believe the Bush administration will have school safety as a high priority, and I think we need to give the administration the benefit of the doubt.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ashcroft’s Record Troubles Youth Advocates


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