Dealing with crime in school doesn't mean trampling on rights

Question 1: Are a good number of America's urban schools really violence-prone, drug-infested, lawless jungles, as some reports indicate? Question 2: Does the US need a crackdown to restore discipline to the classroom and put teachers and administrators back in charge?

Question 3: Is it necessary to suspend the rights of a violent minority in order to ensure the safety of the nonviolent majority?

Answers: Yes; perhaps; no.

Although the latest available figures are a bit dated (they go back to 1978), they show conclusively that crime in US schools has risen to crisis proportions. Physical assaults on students and teachers and widespread vandalism and theft, along with illegal use of drugs and alcohol, are now everyday occurrences. And some school officials are throwing up their hands in frustration. They lament that they are being asked to do what parents are unable to do: keep unruly and even violent youngsters in check. And there is also concern that the growing body of law protecting the rights of students has tilted so far that it has become an invitation to crime.

So what is the answer? To get tough? To do a better job of taking knives and guns out of students' hands by giving a bigger stick to teachers and administrators? This is what some people are advocating.

Some go so far as to suggest canceling certain constitutional rights in the case of students. Young people tend to misuse them, anyway, they argue. This rationale goes even further: Why do we need disciplinary hearings? Why should school records be opened to students and parents? How can officials keep tabs on potential troublemakers without some sort of secrecy? And, if administrators suspect youngsters are using drugs or alcohol in school, why shouldn't they use a pass key to inspect lockers?

This type of thinking seems to be behind the Reagan administration's call for a nationwide campaign against ''unruly behavior'' in schools, which would include curtailing certain student rights recognized by the courts in recent years.

Significant strides have been made in behalf of students, including the right to a hearing in most disciplinary actions, particularly those that lead to expulsion; the right for parents to see their children's records and to challenge information they feel is incorrect; and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures at school.

But even before the Justice Department launches its first brief on behalf of school officials, civil libertarians are charging that the administration is out to eliminate the principle of due process and to assault the very constitutional protections students are taught in the classroom to honor.

The administration wants to back off from laws that protect students - laws it says are too plentiful and too permissive. Among them, one recently upheld by New Jersey courts which limits the right of school authorities to search students' lockers for contraband drugs or weapons. Ironically, moves to repeal such laws will likely lead to even more litigation in the short term. Proposed laws to put the clamps on student rights must inevitably bring on briefs to shore up these guarantees.

Who is right, and who is wrong? The issues are anything but clear cut. The problem is real - and serious. The Reagan administration has a right, even a responsibility, to address it. If, by coincidence, the get-tough rhetoric serves the President on the eve of his reelection announcement, so be it.

Yet it seems clear that the real leadership and solutions must come from individual school districts. Parents, teachers, and local officials need to work together more effectively to spearhead antiviolence campaigns, such as Dallas's code-of-conduct plan and Charlotte-Mecklenburg's alternative in-school suspension (both described in adjacent report).Some schools have already made significant progress. Mutual trust and genuine care about young people, rather than emphasis on punishment are crucial.

Of course, rules need to be enforced - but consistently and fairly. A national student discipline code proposed by some educators would not seem to be the answer. It would only cause confusion and probably more lawsuits. In some instances, the situation calls for tough action. For example, a student pushing drugs or carrying weapons should be a prime candidate for expulsion. Every disciplinary move, however, calls for due process - an explanation of the charges and usually a hearing on their validity.

Ira Glasser, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he is particularly concerned that, in a sweeping effort to eliminate crime and violence in the schools, constitutional rights may be trampled on. ''Responding to disorder in the classroom by depriving students of a fair hearing is like responding to crime by abolishing the right to a fair trial,'' Mr. Glasser points out.

American schools provide a unique tool for teaching the strengths of the democratic system. It is imperative that we protect the vast number of law-abiding students from those who would aren't. But it is also important that we practice what we preach - fairness, justice, equality.

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