Nationwide, School Safety a Familiar Campaign Theme

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Tapping public fears over school safety, gubernatorial candidates of both parties are trumpeting a wide range of campaign proposals they say will restore order and discipline in the nation's classrooms.

With the Nov. 3 elections approaching, many candidates in the 36 governor's races this fall are espousing a common goal of student safety, even as their individual prescriptions vary--from empowering teachers to creating after-school programs for troubled youths.

Analysts say much of the current political focus can be traced to deadly school shootings in the past school year in small towns such as Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore. The incidents struck a chord with parents, particularly those in areas where their children's safety at school had not ostensibly been at issue, said June Lane Arnette, the communications director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

"The fact that the incidents were in rural and suburban areas really brought home the idea that this could happen anywhere," Ms. Arnette said.

"School safety is a more politically correct topic right now than ever before," the center's executive director, Ronald D. Stephens, added. "It's not a partisan issue."

Varied Priorities

In Oregon, Republican candidate Bill Sizemore, the director of a conservative political organization, proposes to make schools safer by giving teachers the authority to remove problem students from the classroom and to set the terms for their return. Under Mr. Sizemore's plan, schools would create alternative education programs with strict disciplinary codes for such students. He does not advocate additional state funding for such programs, however.

Candidates in other states, including Democrat Paul Johnson in Arizona and Democratic state Rep. Roy Barnes in Georgia, have incorporated similar proposals in their platforms.

Teachers are often in the best position to identify troubled students, and, when necessary, seek help for them, said Cathy Epley, a spokeswoman for Mr. Sizemore's campaign.

School violence concerns may hit close to home with Oregon voters in particular this election season, following the highly publicized incident last May in which freshman Kipland P. Kinkel allegedly opened fire in a Springfield high school cafeteria, killing two students and injuring 22 others. ("Two Students Die, 22 Injured in Ore. Rampage," May 27, 1998.)

"A lot of these kids who end up committing awful crimes have warning bells going off above their heads for years ahead of time," Ms. Epley said. "Kip Kinkel had prior arrests, and everyone was aware of his violent tendencies. He should have been red-flagged."

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat seeking re-election, has also addressed school safety concerns, proposing a $30 million measure that would fund prevention programs and services for at-risk youths.

Gubernatorial candidates in Iowa, meanwhile, have different priorities. The Democratic candidate, state Sen. Tom Vilsack, and Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot, a former member of the U.S. house, both have proposed anti-drug measures designed in part to get a handle on the state's growing problem of methamphetamine abuse among teenagers.

Mr. Vilsack also proposes an $18 million school violence and crime-prevention package that would put a police officer trained to work with youngsters in every middle school and junior high school in the state. The officers would work with at-risk students or those with demonstrated delinquency problems to deter bad behavior, said Ron Parker, a spokesman for Mr. Vilsack's campaign.

"Right now, things aren't that bad in Iowa, but rather than wait for there to be more metal detectors in schools...let's get on top of this thing now," he said.

But in their quest to find an issue that resonates with voters, candidates may be exaggerating the need for aggressive, costly approaches to keeping schools safe, said Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. In July, the research organization released a study arguing that schools are statistically safer now than they were five years ago, and that violent incidents involving juveniles are still far more likely to occur in cities than in rural or suburban communities.

Some candidates are "responding to the misperception that school shootings are on the rise," Mr. Schiraldi said. "But [school violence] is not something that's evenly distributed. We need to focus our resources ... where this is a problem."

But Mr. Stephens of the National School Safety Center said public officials, and those campaigning for public office, ought to be lauded instead of criticized for focusing on violence prevention.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Page 18

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Nationwide, School Safety a Familiar Campaign Theme
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