Safe Schools Office Finds Itself at Storm's Eye

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Even William Modzeleski, who seems to thrive on a schedule that speeds him from meeting to meeting at a dizzying pace, admits things have been pretty hectic lately.

On a recent workday, the Department of Education's safe and drug-free schools director's itinerary includes: a spot on a Philadelphia radio show; an interview for a Playboy magazine article on drug education; a half-hour conference call with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley; tete-a-tetes with White House and Department of Justice aides on interagency collaborations; and two lengthy staff meetings. And that's all before lunch.

A series of fatal school shootings, including one at a Springfield, Ore., high school last month that claimed two students' lives, has President Clinton's point man on school crime working overtime, giving advice to educators worried that their schools will become the next headline. ("Officials Take No Chances After Killings," June 3, 1998.)

"The federal government is not the savior for communities' drug and violence problems, but we want to provide schools with the information to craft solutions," Mr. Modzeleski said in an interview in his office earlier this month.

In some ways, the safe and drug-free schools and communities office has never seemed so indispensable. Yet the Clinton administration is fighting to prove to congressional critics that the controversial office deserves to exist at all. Bolstered by research challenging the efficacy of initiatives financed by the office, many Republicans have questioned its success in reducing crime and drug use.

Swelling Budget

In a rare acknowledgment of the program's shortcomings perhaps meant to appease the critics, Secretary Riley told a gathering of state officials at a safe schools conference in Washington this month that everyone must "do a much better job of making sure that what we are doing is effective."

"We can't begin to talk about improving the safety of our nation's schools unless we tighten up our own programs to make sure that they are research-based and have met the highest standards," Mr. Riley said. Starting next month, the office's grantees must set measurable goals, evaluate their progress, and incorporate research-tested methods into their drug education and violence-prevention efforts, he said.

At the same time, in his fiscal 1999 budget proposal, President Clinton has called on Congress to provide $606 million for the office, a 9 percent hike from its current appropriation of $556 million.

With a staff of about 30, the program has seen its funding balloon in little more than a decade. In the 10 years before 1987, the Education Department's alcohol and drug-abuse prevention program typically received $2 million to $3 million a year. But in fiscal 1987, funding jumped to $200 million a year as then-President Reagan's campaign against adolescent drug use expanded. By fiscal 1992, that figure had more than tripled to $623.9 million.

In 1994, with the passage of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, the office was reorganized to add school safety to its agenda.

But when Republicans took control of Congress after the fall 1994 elections, many blasted the office for underwriting programs that apparently didn't work. Singled out for the most criticism was the widely used Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program, which many researchers found did little to prevent students from experimenting with drugs.

Today, that Republican skepticism lingers.

"There's no question that we need to stop drug use in schools, but we shouldn't be funding programs that don't work," said William A. Duncan, the Appropriations Committee aide for Rep. Ernest J. Istook, R-Okla., an outspoken critic of the safe and drug-free schools office. "They are a waste of taxpayer dollars," he said.

Then there is a long-ago case that makes even employees at the Education Department wince.

"We had a grantee who videotaped guinea pigs on pot and showed them to kids," recalled Charlotte Gillespie, one of Mr. Modzeleski's top aides.

Videos of the drugged creatures were shown to children in a misguided effort to discourage marijuana use, Ms. Gillespie said. For one thing, "it's a leap to assume that guinea pigs will have the same reaction [to the drug] as humans," she said. "The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wasn't happy about it either."

Such episodes gave congressional critics ample ammunition to attempt to zero out funding for the program in fiscal 1996. But President Clinton, who has long championed the office, vetoed the Education Department's appropriations bill as part of a much larger budgetary showdown with Congress. The office survived, but lawmakers eventually passed a bill that slashed its funding to $465.9 million in fiscal 1996, down from $481.9 million the year before.

Hard to Measure

Although Mr. Clinton has since made school safety one of his top education priorities, observers say the White House wants to avoid a similar showdown in Congress over the program.

To avoid further clashes, Mr. Modzeleski and his staff have worked for the past two years to reorganize and to answer Republican calls for assurances that grantees have proven track records before they secure federal dollars.

But the department has stopped short of saying it will immediately withdraw aid from grant recipients with less-than-impressive records.

"Its a Catch-22 for us. If it's the only money schools have [for anti-drug and -violence initiatives], should we automatically pull the money?" Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in a recent interview. But Mr. Tirozzi added that, "down the road, we need to make some hard calls."

Some in the drug- and violence-prevention community also argue that it can be difficult to demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs.

Sally Germain, the vice president of the Bureau for At-Risk Youth in Plainview, N.Y., which distributes a video curriculum called Street Peace to thousands of schools nationwide, said her organization's videos are designed to influence attitudes and develop character.

"That's not something that you can do a test on and say it's done the trick," Ms. Germain said.

And while some observers say it would be helpful to schools to have guidance on which drug-prevention book, conflict-resolution seminar, or school safety software to buy, the federal government is prohibited by law from endorsing specific curricula.

But Mr. Modzeleski's staff is now assembling a panel of experts that will identify specific programs with proven records of reducing drug use and thwarting violence among young people.

Mr. Modzeleski, nonetheless, cautions against quick fixes.

The federal government can only guide schools in preventing tragedies on campuses and in communities, and schools need to initiate their own projects as well, he said. "While we want to help and will help, schools will have to do a lot on their own," he said.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 27, 29

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Safe Schools Office Finds Itself at Storm's Eye
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