Billions spent on ambitious, flawed school program Federal effort falls short of mission to deter violence, drug abuse

September 07, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Over the past dozen years, the U.S. Department of Education has poured nearly $6 billion into an ambitious yet flawed program that has fallen far short of its mission to control violence and narcotics abuse in the nation's public schools.

Billed as the federal government's largest program to deter student drug use and aggression, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act provides more than $500 million annually to local school districts with virtually no strings attached. But much of the money has been spent on initiatives that either are ineffective or appear to have little to do with reducing youth violence and substance abuse, records and interviews show.

"We are wasting money on programs that have been demonstrated not to work," said Delbert S. Elliott, director of the University of Colorado Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

The program's track record takes on added import in the wake of a half-dozen school shootings during the past year in which 16 people were killed and 50 wounded. The crackle of gunfire in schoolyards from Oregon to Kentucky not only riveted public attention to the problem of youth violence but exposed gaping holes in government attempts to ensure safe schools.

Taxpayer dollars paid for motivational speakers, puppet shows, tickets to Disneyland, resort weekends and a $6,500 toy police car, the Los Angeles Times found. Federal funds are also spent routinely on dunking booths, lifeguards and entertainers, including magicians, clowns and a Southern beauty queen, who serenades students with pop hits.

Although critics say these expenditures are a waste of federal money, they are permitted under the guidelines of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. And some school administrators contend the activities help reinforce the anti-drug and -violence themes that are taught in the classroom.

A pair of highly critical reports released last year -- one done for the Department of Justice and the other commissioned by the Education Department -- all but pronounced Safe and Drug-Free Schools a failure.

The Congressional Budget Office suggested eliminating the program as part of its recommendations for reducing federal spending in 1997. The proposal was rejected.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the program has succeeded in "taking a national interest in a problem" and sending money to local school districts to fix it "without controlling how they do it."

But Riley acknowledged that he is "concerned" about the results, particularly in light of his department's study. His concern is shared by Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug czar.

Since it was launched in 1987, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools effort has paid out $5.7 billion. Nearly all the country's 14,881 school districts participate in what Education Department literature bills as the federal government's "primary vehicle for reducing the demand for illicit drugs through education and prevention activities."

Top department officials admit that they have no idea how the money is spent on programs, training or even metal detectors, because all the decisions are made by state and local officials who are not required to report back to Washington.

The head of the department's 28-member Safe and Drug-Free Schools unit conceded in an interview that the program has produced "mixed results," adding that it is difficult to pinpoint any impact on student behavior.

"If the drug use goes down, it's not an indicator that we've been successful, just as if the drug use goes up, it's not an indicator that we've been a failure," said William Modzeleski, the program director.

Some districts use Safe and Drug-Free Schools money to bolster school security -- a move educators acknowledge is necessary to ensure the safety of students.

Federal guidelines permit local schools to spend up to 20 percent of their annual allotments for safety measures, such as metal detectors and security guards.

But federal education officials are now seeking to bolster the program by redirecting federal dollars to strategies that show results.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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