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Failing Grade for Safe Schools Plan

U.S. has given $6 billion to combat drugs, violence. With little oversight, money has gone for marginally successful programs, investigation finds.


WASHINGTON — Over the last 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 provided an average of $500 million annually to local school districts with virtually no strings attached. The result: 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 half-a-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.

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

The program illustrates how Washington sometimes deals with vexing social issues: Politicians pass reform legislation that steers federal funds into their districts, then unleash a torrent of speeches and press releases promising immediate action.

Yet few notice how the money is actually spent or what gets accomplished. Left to thrash about for any strategy that works, local officials scatter federal money in all directions and on unrelated expenses. If the problem persists, many lawmakers resort to a familiar solution: More money.

"Every elected official wants these programs in their district," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "Once you succumb to that pressure, you're just dealing with a political program. You're not dealing with drug prevention or violence prevention."

The Los Angeles Unified School District used some of its $8-million grant last year to purchase a new car, four guns, ammunition and an ultrasonic firearms cleaner at the request of a detective who rarely steps foot on school grounds. After The Times raised questions about the purchases, district officials last week decided to return the money.

In Richmond, Va., where a ninth-grader shot and wounded a basketball coach and a teacher's aide two days before school let out in June, state education officials spent $16,000 to publish a drug-free party guide that recommends staging activities such as Jell-O wrestling and pageants "where guys dress up in women's wear."

Although critics say the spending is a waste of federal money, it is permitted under the general guidelines of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. And some school administrators contend the activities, which represent a fraction of their expenditures, help reinforce the anti-drug and violence themes that are taught in the classroom.

A cottage industry of consultants, publishers and small-time "edutainers" has grown up around the program, competing for the attention of school officials with slick promotions and networks of commissioned sales reps.

"This is big business," said Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit institute in Washington that has analyzed dozens of school drug- and violence-prevention programs.

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

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

Even critics agree that eradicating drug abuse and violence in the nation's schools is a critical issue that should command the attention of the federal government. It is for this reason that most experts say the program needs to be cured, not killed.

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 in an interview that he is "concerned" about the results, particularly in the wake of his own department's study. His concern is shared by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug czar.

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