Mich. Lawmakers Debate School Safety Bills

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When it comes to improving school safety, there's no shortage of ideas in this year's Michigan legislative session. The real problem is reaching agreement on the 20-plus bills that have been introduced on the issue.

There are bills to create a state office of school safety and public school academies for expelled students. Others urge districts to use school uniforms or call for the expulsion of students who assault teachers.

Rep. Jessie Dalman

"We're in the middle of a big mess right now," said Rep. Jessie Dalman, a Republican member of the House education committee. "We need to get something passed and in place by the fall."

Observers are optimistic that a school safety package will be ratified well before the legislature adjourns in December and in time for the 1998-99 school year.

Last week's mass shooting at an Arkansas middle school that left four students and one teacher dead has heightened the sense of urgency surrounding state and local efforts to make schools safer.

Rep. Sharon L. Gire

"It can happen anywhere. ... People are asking us what are we going to do about it," said Jerry Sieracki, the principal of the 1,000-student Gaylord (Mich.) High School in the state's north-central region. "We have to be proactive."

To date, none of the bills has passed both chambers, although several have received Senate approval. A high-profile bill passed last October and would mandate 180-day expulsions for students who assault school employees. The bill's critics fault it for not spelling out an appeals process or defining an assault.

"Changes have been made, but it needs more refining," said Linda Myers, a lobbyist for the Michigan Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "As employees, we need an appeals process, and we feel that students should [have one], too."

Another bill approved by the Senate in October would make it easier for a student who has been the victim of a criminal assault at school to transfer to a new district. The bill followed a case in which it took nine months for a Kalamazoo student to transfer after she alleged that she had been raped by eight male students near her school in December 1996.

In addition to taking up the Senate bills this month, the House education committee will try to amend a 1995 state law that mandates the expulsion of students who carry weapons to school.

Initially hailed as a get-tough-on-violence measure, the law has come under attack because it does not require alternative education for the expelled students.

"We have a new population of children who are unsupervised almost 24 hours a day," said Rep. Sharon L. Gire, who is the Democratic chairwoman of the House education committee. "They are in need of pretty structured settings."

State officials said at least 576 students have been expelled since the law took effect in 1996. While schools are required to report the data, there is no penalty for failing to do so. As a result, the expulsion numbers are incomplete, the officials added.

But lawmakers differ over how they would treat expelled students. Proposals include requiring alternative schools and individualized learning plans for students who are expelled from their regular schools.

Ms. Dalman said that she and other Republicans are skeptical of such plans. "These students will get more attention than the regular students," she said.

'Sounds So Good'

Instead, Ms. Dalman backs a bill that would create a state office of school safety to track criminal incidents in schools and craft model practices for conflict resolution, alternative schools, and other issues.

That idea faces resistance from some Democrats.

"We want to see money go directly to schools and students," said Rep. Mark Schauer, the Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee on school violence, which has held more than a dozen public hearings on the issue.

For all of the debate, Gaylord High's Mr. Sieracki, who testified before the panel, is encouraged by the legislative focus on school discipline. "They're headed in the right direction," he said.

But Elizabeth Arnovits, the executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit public-policy group in Lansing, charges that many of the proposals are vague and would usurp local control of schools while ignoring due process for students.

She's also skeptical about the motivation behind the bills. "It's an election year, and you have a strong teachers' union that can be played to on this issue," she said. "It just sounds so good."

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