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Juvenile Workers Question Safe Schools Bill

February 09, 1996
By: ELIZABETH MCKINLEY
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Some of the people who work with the unruly brats in Missouri's schools are raising questions whether the administration's "Safe Schools" proposal actually will make schools safer.

Rebecca Culler, a juvenile officer in the 27th judicial circuit in western Missouri, said she supports the safe schools initiative, but isn't sure the legislation effectively addresses all the issues.

She said stricter punishments, the threat of making an assault on a teacher a felony and reporting crimes to the police and juvenile authorities won't necessarily deter students from committing these crimes.

"Our schools already file police reports," she said. "It's normal operating procedure now in our area and many others."

Culler also questions expelling a child from a "normal" school when there is no alternative school for the students to attend.

"I still have to deal with them," she said. "Alternative schools aren't geared toward B&D (behavioral and disorder) kids. We can't dump everyone with a behavior problem into an alternative school."

Culler said the alternative schools in her district lack facilities and money.

Part of Culler's job is protecting children's rights. "We're concerned with children's rights not being violated," she said.

Culler added that she thought the details could be worked out with further discussion.

Julie Cole-Agee, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, said while she supports the legislative efforts, there is already a good, cooperative relationship between the courts and officers in schools.

Cole-Agee cited a 1994 survey by the Public Safety Department that polled school officials, law enforcers and juvenile court workers. The survey listed ineffective parenting as the number one reason juvenile violence has increased in Missouri. Ironically, ineffective laws and/or policies fell last.

But legislators maintain their bills will help keep troublemakers from disrupting students who want to learn.

In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve McLuckie, D-Kansas City, would require a school to honor suspensions in other schools.

McLuckie's bill also gives money to districts to set up alternative schools. These schools would keep disruptive students off the streets and give them a second chance, McLuckie said.

"We want to turn kids around and get their life straightened out," he said.

McLuckie also said he thought the consequences of stricter laws would deter students from acting up. "The teachers I've talked with have said they believe it will make a world of difference," he said.

But Sen. Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles, said he doesn't necessarily think giving more money to alternative schools is the solution. His bill was approved by the Senate Committee and is waiting for an executive session vote.

Ehlmann said while he isn't opposed to giving some money for alternative schools, he didn't want to take money away from the other students. Disruptive students receive about three times more money than the average student who wants to learn in a safe environment, he added.

Rep. Mary Hagan-Harrell, D-St. Louis County, said she thinks communication between the school, student and police is important.

She said it's vital for a student's records to arrive with the student.

Her bills would make it necessary for all student records - criminal, medical and academic - to arrive with the student as well as making stricter penalties for assaults on teachers.

"I feel that any new student could be a danger and feel students and teachers need to be aware," Hagan-Harrel said. "School should be a sacred place, a safe haven."

And law enforcement officials said they think setting up a method of reporting between the schools, police and juvenile officials will help deter violence in schools.

"We've seen individuals in the past involved in real violent incidents," said Col. Fred Mills, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. "It's critical to know for the safety of school, teachers and students to be aware of an individual's past."

Mills said the safe schools legislation will make students more responsible for their behavior because they would be accountable for their actions.