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Cutting dropout rates also fights crime, study says

A 10% increase in the graduation rate would prevent 500 homicides annually in California, an analysis finds.

December 26, 2007|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

How drastic are the consequences of dropping out of school? There are studies connecting high dropout rates with increased health costs, welfare dependency, lower income -- even shorter life spans.

This month, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and a host of law enforcement officials gathered in a portable classroom at Blair International Baccalaureate School in Pasadena to add one more report to the list: high dropout rates mean more homicides and aggravated assaults.

"It is a tragedy. We have 50% of students drop out of high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District," Baca said. "Many of them are going to be in L.A. city jails as adults."

In a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Baca, along with Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, Huntington Park Police Chief Michael Trevis and more than 200 other law enforcement officials, declared an "urgent need to act now" to keep students from dropping out.

By making uniformed sheriffs and police chiefs the voice of school reform, advocates say, they get a chance to propose solutions and bring attention to the severe consequences of dropping out. But implementing costly solutions probably isn't going to happen any time soon, they admit.

The numbers presented in "School or the Streets: Crime and California's Dropout Crisis" are stark. Simply increasing the graduation rate 10% would prevent 500 homicides and more than 20,000 aggravated assaults each year in California, according to the report.

Los Angeles County could prevent 214 homicides and 7,241 aggravated assaults, the report said.

Whether these numbers are accurate is always a question with this type of report, said Brian Lee, deputy director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, an advocacy group made up of law enforcement officials who put together the report.

The numbers are based on a previous study, which concluded that a 10% increase in graduation would reduce homicide and assaults about 20%. By applying those percentages to state and county crime rates, the report makes its own conclusions about reducing crime in California.

But the real problem isn't deciding whether dropout rates are linked to crime -- most advocates say that's common sense -- the problem is figuring out how to keep students in school.

The Fight Crime report proposes some solutions. They include mentoring, better teaching, quality preschool and monitoring of at-risk students. One program proposes grouping students and teachers together until graduation.

"I think we have good evidence about things that work to keep kids from dropping out," said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project.

"The bigger problem is getting them implemented statewide," but that won't happen without funds, he said.

The same day that law enforcement officials sent their letter to the governor, wide-ranging budget cuts were reported.

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who created a legislative study group to investigate dropout rates, was pessimistic about immediate dramatic change.

"There's no question we're not going to be able to spend new money this year," he said. "The budget problem is serious."

Such change might come when the state budget improves in 2010 or 2011, he said.

Huntington Park's Chief Trevis said he's frustrated by the funding problem.

"We spend thousands of dollars a day on kids in the juvenile justice system. I don't understand that," he said. "Hey, governor, let's get our priorities turned around a bit."

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