After a lull, shootings in schools climb again 1 in 8 youths tell poll they have carried weapon for protection

March 03, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Two years after school districts around the nation scrambled to adopt tough provisions to keep guns out of schools, fatal shootings of students and teachers are again on the rise, renewing concerns about crime and violence in schools.

In the past month alone, a teen-ager was shot to death on a school bus in St. Louis on Thursday, a teacher in Los Angeles was critically wounded in the head by a stray bullet the week before, and a teacher and two students were shot and killed Feb. 3 in a junior-high classroom in Moses Lake, Wash., by a student with a high-powered rifle.

A recent national survey by Louis Harris & Associates found that 1 in 8 youths -- almost 2 in 5 in high-crime neighborhoods -- reported having carried a weapon for protection, while 1 in 9 -- 1 in 3 in high-crime neighborhoods -- said they had cut class or stayed away from school because of the fear of crime.

"We've gone from fistfights to gunfights," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., "and it's changed the landscape of the American school.

"I can't say for sure why the number of incidents is up this year over last year, but there are so many guns out there a lot of them are still finding their way into the schools."

The safety center said 26 violent deaths already had been reported at schools in the 1995-1996 school year, compared with 20 in the whole 1994-1995 school year.

The 20 deaths that year represented a decrease from 46 the year before and came after the passage of the Federal Gun-Free School Zone Act in 1994, which forced districts to come up with strict anti-gun policies, such as suspending for a year students who take guns to school, as a condition for receiving federal education money.

The law was overturned by the Supreme Court as an undue federal intrusion into local matters, but nearly all the local policies remain in effect.

Of the 147 violent deaths in schools tracked by the school safety center since 1992, 119 have been from gunfire. Officials said that since there was no official reporting category of violent deaths in schools, the numbers almost certainly were conservative. They said about 3 million felony or misdemeanor-level crimes were committed at schools each year.

Experts say that most schools remain safe and that school violence remains a problem primarily in neighborhoods where violence is endemic. There are 44 million students in the nation's public and private schools.

"Schools aren't shooting galleries," said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. "The chances of anyone getting shot, or particularly anyone in a suburban school district, are very, very small."

But, Mr. Newman said, violence, and particularly a small group of disaffected, habitually violent students, remain one of the most pressing problems facing both the schools and the nation.

"Crime and violence is down across the country," he said, "but what's up is youth violence, and what we haven't come to grips with is the core of kids who are becoming more violent, more armed and unaffected by the norms of society.

"It's a real cancer, and we're not addressing it."

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