Keeping the peace at school President Clinton's point man on school violence is the first to acknowledge how difficult his job can be.

CATCHING UP WITH... William Modzeleski

July 05, 1998|By Sharon Rubinstein | Sharon Rubinstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - On March 24, William Modzeleski was preparing for a much-anticipated trip to Los Angeles. A veteran runner, the wiry 52-year-old was set to take part in the Los Angeles Marathon.

Then the phone rang, with news of the schoolyard shootings in Jonesboro, Ark. Modzeleski canceled his trip, and immediately began running in a different direction: to numerous urgent inter-agency meetings and insistent calls from the press. The Clinton administration's point man on school violence had another marathon ahead of him, one with no apparent finish line: the multibillion-dollar effort to stem assaults and killings in American schools.

As head of the Department of Education's Safe and Drug-FreSchools Program, Modzeleski has been running this race for years. A man more measured than excitable, Modzeleski brings a distance runner's perspective to his task. But he admits that this spring's toll of school deaths has been difficult to weather.

"I think I'm shocked, as much as anybody. ... Each one of thesthings was a tragic event in and of itself, but cumulatively it's tough to deal with."

It's also tough, he admits, to come up with good answers to thsudden series of violent episodes. "There's a lot of speculation and rumor and opinions ... but nobody can really say this is why these things occur or whether they will occur again in September."

In the meantime, "All of us are taking a deep breath and hopinthat maybe in the intervening months, things will quiet down. But none of us really knows for sure."

School is out for the summer, but Modzeleski's office is notPresident Clinton has asked for a report on ways to better predict violence. There are calls to be fielded from state and local officials complaining about pending changes in the more than half-billion dollars in school-safety and anti-drug funding his office handles annually. Some guaranteed money may soon evaporate, to be replaced by competitive grants targeting effective programs and high-risk areas. And new regulations require that all programs meet high standards of effectiveness. Modzeleski insists such changes are crucial to assure continued support from Congress. "If we don't do a better job - and quickly - we risk losing support."

While such talk prompts grumbling from some in the schoocommunity, others praise Modzeleski's acumen. Davis Ja, who specializes in evaluation research methods in San Francisco, calls Modzeleski a realist: "I think he's extremely sharp ... and I like his sense of integrity. I think he really understands what he needs to do."

Norman Whitlow, who directs a safe and drug-free schoolprogram in New York, is more succinct: "He seems like a regular guy."

For all the polish he displays in his official dealings, Modzeleskseems just that. After graduating from a Catholic high school in suburban New York, he got a degree in political science from the University of Bridgeport. Accepted to law school, Modzeleski was drafted in 1967 and went instead to Officers' Candidate School.

He got married, then was sent to Vietnam. He picked up Bronze Star and served on court-martial panels, where he was ready to enforce drug laws but was saddened by the young soldiers who were convicted and served time.

When he returned to the United States, Modzeleski set aside hipotential legal career for jobs as a social worker, family-court liaison and probation officer. After earning a master's degree in criminal justice, he moved to the federal arena, arriving in Washington in 1972 with insights from his earlier jobs.

"I gained an understanding of family dynamics and of thproblems kids face, as well as their complexity," he says. "A lot of what I learned serves me today."

After arriving in Washington in 1972, Modzeleski rose througthe ranks at the Department of Justice, concentrating on family, youth and drug issues. Eventually, he was detailed to the Department of Education as executive director of the National Commission on Safe and Drug Free Schools, from which he segued into his present post.

Even without the explosive dramas of Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss.and Springfield, Ore., the spotlight on his office keeps growing brighter. Despite 12-hour days, Modzeleski looks undaunted.

"I like a challenge," he says.

And he still believes that government can be part of the solutionHe praises the Clinton administration in that regard, saying it has made safe schools a top priority.

Modzeleski doesn't mind mixing it up on Capitol Hill to promotthe agenda he supports. "I know we're going to take heat. But that's part of the game. ... It's what we do."

Another crucial part of his task, he says, is staying in touch withis ultimate constituency: kids. He makes a point of knowing, for instance, who Ginger Spice is - or was - and says anyone dealing with adolescents should, as well.

"The overwhelming majority of kids are good kids," he says. "Thkey is to gain your understanding and perspective based on first-hand knowledge."

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