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Don't Fire Indiscriminately : The problem with a simple-minded bring-a-gun-and-you're-out school policy

July 24, 1994

The fatal shooting of Demetrius L. Rice in a crowded Los Angeles High School classroom last year prompted the Los Angeles Board of Education to take the appropriate and necessary step of adopting a strict policy toward guns in public schools. Generally students caught with a firearm on campus are kicked out for the remainder of a semester and the following semester before being allowed to apply for reinstatement.

Since the new standards went into effect in 1993, more than 500 students have been removed from L.A. public schools for carrying firearms ranging from cheap handguns to sawed-off shotguns and semiautomatic weapons. California lawmakers, alarmed by those numbers, and by the proliferation of guns in school districts across the state, recently adopted a similar, but less strict, policy that is now law.

The idea has also caught on in Washington, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) plans to introduce a "zero tolerance" policy as an amendment to the $12-billion Elementary and Secondary Reauthorization Act. The measure would require that any school district receiving federal education funds to expel for a year a student who carries a gun to school.

The idea of a federal ban on aid in the name of safer schools is, in principle, a fine one that no one could argue with. But critics of measure legitimately point out that "zero tolerance" allows for zero flexibility.

What happens to students after they are expelled from schools? Where do they go, and who pays for whatever they receive? That's not addressed in the gun-free schools amendment. But you can bet local jurisdictions will have to figure how to address the problem--and a way to pay for it, otherwise they'll risk losing desperately needed federal funds.

"If you bring a gun to school, you're probably not going to learn anything anyway," Sen Feinstein says. That may be true in most cases, but that also lumps young criminals in with children who foolishly, but without malice, carry weapons because they live in fear. Those kids need suitable alternatives, whether it be continuance schools or some other form of education.

At the very least, sponsors of the safe-schools act should keep in mind that the policy will be implemented in areas with different needs and different resources.

Feinstein's amendment should get broad-based support if it can provide some measure of flexibility at the local level.

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