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School Violence Hot Topic for Session

December 14, 1995
By: L. MEGHAN HUMPHREYS
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Carnahan's plan to make Missouri schools safer may seem like a new idea, but it's not so new to some Missouri legislators and educators.

The problem of violence in schools has been attacked from many different angles over the past few years. Some school districts are placing students with behavioral problems in alternative schools, while others are trying to implement programs of conflict resolution to keep students from fighting.

Dan Colgan, superintendent of schools in St. Joseph, Mo., has had such a program going in his district for several years, involving every grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade in the program. Colgan said he has seen less violence in his district's schools since the program's inception.

"It has reduced the number of fights and tension in the schools and has improved student relations," Colgan said.

Some legislators have tried to pass safe schools bills in the past. Sen. Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles, has introduced a bill on safe schools for three straight years. He said his bill is similar to Carnahan's with a few exceptions: students who assault other students wouldn't be charged with a felony, and there would be no increase in funds for alternative schools.

While Carnahan has emphasized "getting tough" on kids who assault school employees or students, some legislators say the best way to get safe schools is to prevent violence in the first place.

Rep. Glenda Kelly, D-St. Joseph, the co-chair of an interim committee that studied safe schools this fall, said the committee saw the most promise for safe schools in programs, like Colgan's, aimed to teach kids how to deal with conflict.

"We learned that there are some conflict resolution programs that have been very successful. They seem to be a wonderful deterrent to violence," Kelly said.

She found some programs designed to keep students from fighting are having positive effects outside the school as well.

"Some young children in these programs are even teaching these skills to their families," Kelly said.

The governor's program does include violence-prevention aspects. Like the governor, Rep. Annette Morgan, D-Kansas City and chairman of the House Education Committee, said she thinks there is room both to prevent violence but also to toughen punishments for student crime.

"For regular schools, they do have to say that there will be zero tolerance, but they may have to also send the kids to alternative schools," Morgan said.

Missouri's Education Department, for the first time, studied violence in high schools this year. The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Survey, released in November, said 11 percent of the students they questioned said they had brought a weapon to school at least once in the past month. School violence also extends to fist fights - 29 percent of the students said they had been in a physical fight at least once during the last year.