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California and the West

School Safety Bills Flood State Capitol

Legislation: Three dozen measures are being considered, ranging from boosting the number of counselors to putting phones in the classrooms.

May 30, 1999|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Every act of school violence sends a ripple through state government. In the case of the killing spree at Columbine High School in Colorado, the legislative response has been a tsunami.

Three dozen school safety bills are under consideration in Sacramento. Though many were launched before the Littleton, Colo., shooting last month, all gained momentum in its wake.

Their goals range from boosting the number of counselors to installing classroom telephones.

In addition, the governor has set aside $100 million for school safety in his May budget revision.

"We feel when we have such attention that we have to do something or else there's a message that we haven't done anything," said Mary Tobias Weaver, the state Department of Education's top expert on school safety planning.

California seems to be doing something right already: Statistics indicate steady declines in school crimes and on-campus gun possession. That is partly attributed to reforms that followed tragedies in this state, most notably the 1989 Stockton schoolyard shooting and back-to-back murders of Los Angeles students in 1993.

But schools can never be too well prepared, according to Los Angeles school psychologist Rich Lieberman. Flown in with national crisis management teams to some of the most notorious school shootings, Lieberman has come to believe that schools fall into two categories: "Those that have dealt with a major tragedy and those that have not yet."

The question is how best to prepare. And there the road splits between two philosophies: get tough or offer help.

The broadest of the safe schools bills, SB 334 by Coronado Democratic Sen. Dede Alpert, encompasses both approaches in an effort to gain bipartisan support.

Alpert sees the flurry of post-Littleton legislative activity as more opportunity than opportunism, pointing to the $30 million in domestic violence funding approved within two weeks of the Nicole Brown Simpson slaying.

"Sometimes you take advantage of a tragedy to get something good done," she said.

Under the mouthful title of "No More Victims: Violence Prevention and Safe Schools Strategy 2000," Alpert's bill provides $150 million in block grants for everything from improving classroom communication systems to training school staff on how to deal with troubled youths.

It also beefs up punishment, including releasing the names of juveniles arrested for serious felonies and requiring that courts try as adults anyone 16 or older who commits a second violent felony.

At this junction, Alpert's bill is expected to function as an umbrella for some of the ideas contained in the 35 other bills.

Flexibility is the main difference between Alpert's plan and one by Gov. Gray Davis--a difference that will have to be worked out in the coming months in order for the money to be freed.

Davis has allocated $42.5 million for counselors, another $42.5 million for grants to buy hardware, such as metal detectors and fences, and $15 million for county offices of education to review school safety plans.

Among the other pending bills:

* SB 756--Gives school districts the ability to suspend or expel students for violent crimes committed off campus. Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).

* AB 1136--Requires any new or modernized school building to include wiring for telephones in every classroom. Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncans Mills).

* AB 166--Increases the ratio of counselors to students to 1:450 and urges that counseling services begin in elementary school. Assemblyman Carl Washington (D-Compton).

* AB 273--Adds three years to the sentence when a felony is committed against a student on campus or on his or her way to school. Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena).

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