Los Angeles school suit focuses on pupil safety

Is it "cruel and unusual punishment" to compel a child to attend a violence-torn school? Yes, charges California Attorney General George Deukmejian. And if the state's highest ranking law officer gets his way, California courts may agree with him.

In the first move of its kind in the state -- and also perhaps in the nation -- Mr. Deukmejian recently filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles county, city, and school officials for failing to provide safety in classrooms and schoolyards beset by violence.

As it has across the United States, school violence has risen alarmily here, accountting for nearly $24 million in damages over the past six years in the Los angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) alone.

The nature of that violence has grown increasingly serious. Once characterized by playground scuffles and rock-throwing, school violence today sometimes involves shootings and rapes.

In addressing that problem, the lawsuit involves a double thrust.

First, it seeks to spur the eight government agencies now responsible for reducing school violence into developing a coordianted plan of action to be led by one agency.

Although each of the agencies has long been involved in studying the problem, their efforts have not been enough, says a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

"They'll do anything -- except do something," he says.

Second, the suit seeks to establish a new precedent. There are only three groups of people, argues Mr. Deukmejian, required by state law to be in a given place for a given period of time -- prison inmates, involuntarily hospitalized mental patients, and schoolchildren.

Therefore, he insists, "public school students have special status, and because of that special status they are entitled to special protections and rights under the laws of California."

Just as courts have recognized the state's responsibility to protect prisoners and mental patients from "cruel and unusual punishment," he claims, they should alo acknowledge a student's right to be protected at school.

This is a legal argument that has caused some surprise among professionals, who agree it is a novel approach. And it is a case that may take five years or more to resolve as it winds through the backlogged court system.

Some $10 million is spent on security -- which includes a force of 300 security officers -- each year in the LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the nation.

But despite the millions spent and the workshops and programs initiated to deal with school crime, violence continues to rise. In 1978-79, some 30,000 incidents causing $8.5 million worth of damage were reported in the 82 school districts in Los Angeles County.

School and law enforcement officials claim the solution lies at least in part in tougher juvenile laws.

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