Educators Following Measures Designed To Combat Youth Violence

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Faced with a disturbing number of student crimes and gun incidents, and limited security budgets with which to address such problems, educators are scrutinizing a batch of youth-related-crime legislation making its way through Congress.

Late last month, the House Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights approved the "safe and drug-free schools and communities act,'' which was attached last week to a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (See story, page 16.)

The measure calls for grants to public schools to set up violence-prevention programs and build anti-crime coalitions, and would provide technical assistance to school districts to combat juvenile crime and drug use. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the Administration will ask for $660 million for the program in next year's budget.

Because the E.S.E.A. will not be passed late in the year, the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education last week also approved a separate, one-year safe-schools bill. It would authorize $50 million this year, although the Education Department budget includes only $20 million.

Under that bill, HR 3455, districts with high rates of violence would be eligible to apply for grants this year to prevent crime and improve security on school grounds. The full Education and Labor Committee is expected to consider the measure this week; the Senate last week voted to attach a similar provision to the Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act.'' (See story, page 18.)

In addition, the anti-crime bill that passed the Senate last fall would authorize $300 million for a three-year grant program for schools to develop alternative punishments for youth offenders, purchase metal detectors, or fund other crime-prevention efforts. The House Judiciary Committee is considering a similar measure.

Mixed Reaction

The federal pitch for school safety reached a crescendo last month when President Clinton pledged in his State of the Union Message to offer solutions to the problem of violent crime.

So far, educators generally have applauded the Administration's leadership on the issue.

"We have to reduce the carnage in our schools, and the Administration is in sync with us,'' said Timothy J. Dyer, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"What the Administration has done is put school safety on the education agenda,'' added Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center.

But many educators find some of the Administration's approach problematic.

Many school leaders object to the Administration's request that no more than 33 percent of the money for the safe-schools program be used for metal detectors.

"I understand that when your house is burning down you don't start remodeling the kitchen, you put out the fire,'' said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. "But spending money on security systems is the wrong response to the problem.''

President Clinton's call to stiffen penalties for repeat offenders also rankled some school-safety experts.

"Three strikes, and you're out? Is our whole response [to violence] going to be based on cute phrases?'' asked Peter Blauvelt, the director of school security for Prince George's County, Md., district in the Washington suburbs.

Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines of the New York City schools charged that "the Administration is not taking the school-security issue seriously,'' which he said is evidenced by the proposed level of federal funding. Prevention also should be emphasized more, he said.

"You've got kids in the community ready to explode because of what's going on inside them,'' Mr. Cortines said.

Henry Fraind, the assistant superintendent of the Dade County, Fla., schools, said that "easy access to firearms'' is responsible for most of the bloodshed in public schools and that until the government puts stricter limits on gun purchases, nothing will change.

"We can't talk about conflict resolution in the classroom when people are shooting each other in traffic,'' he said.

Some said one problem with the Administration's strategy is that most schools, legislators, and school policymakers lack a uniform definition of school violence, and schools often do not keep adequate records of violent incidents.

Many educators also advocate creation of a national data base so that schools can share information on juvenile offenders.

Over all, educators hope the funding for school-safety measures will match federal leaders' tough talk on the issue.

"The funding in the [House] school-safety bill is pretty inadequate considering the rhetorical attention being given the problem,'' said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "But Congress has never come so close before.''

Meanwhile, as the legislation moves through Congress, Administration officials are busy developing a comprehensive strategy to help educators and others address school violence.

Task Force At Work

The Administration's working group on school violence, made up of officials from the Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services departments, is expected to publish its recommendations this spring.

The report will cover five broad areas and offer guidance to educators on how to develop safe-schools policies, said William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach for the Education Department and a member of the task force.

Mr. Modzeleski said in an interview last week that the report will call on schools to develop safety plans and to organize training for students in managing conflict.

He said mentoring programs and information sharing should be elements of a successful school-safety plan, but warned against relying too heavily on any one of these areas.

"School security is one leg of this many-legged creature,'' Mr. Modzeleski said.

He also noted that the impact of such programs is limited by larger societal problems, as the crime in schools reflects that in society.

"Schools can be buffers, but they can't buffer it all out,'' he said.

Vol. 13, Issue 20

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