THE American public's get-tough stance on crime is extending into the schools, where as many as 135,000 students a day carry guns in book bags.
Many local districts are adopting ``zero tolerance'' policies to automatically expel any student caught with a gun at school. The approach - though controversial - is getting results in some cases:
* In Washington, D.C., annual student expulsions have declined from 52 to 27 in the five years since the district established a zero-tolerance policy on gun possession.
* Education officials in Corpus Christi, Texas, report quicker results after initiating the plan last year. ``We saw a dramatic decline in the number of weapons on campus in the second semester,'' says Linda Bridges, president of the local teachers' union.
* Los Angeles public schools experienced a 30 percent drop in the number of guns on campus last year after a zero-tolerance policy was instituted.
Growing public concern about school safety has led to federal legislation to expand zero-tolerance policies nationwide. Last month, President Clinton signed a law requiring the nation's 85,000 school districts to expel gun-toting students for at least a year or risk losing federal funds.
``Zero tolerance is a common-sense policy,'' President Clinton said. ``Why does anybody need to have a gun in school?''
The new federal law is part of the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The provision was cosponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and based on a state law passed there in 1992.
``The federal government is starting to get involved in the area of school safety,'' says George Butterfield, legal-services director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. ``And I think we're going to see more and more of that.''
Many educators grappling with school violence welcome a helping hand from the federal government. But others are concerned about what happens to students who are expelled under zero-tolerance policies.
``Are we willing, as the federal legislation now calls for, to put a child with a gun out on the streets for a year without any support or efforts at rehabilitation?'' asks Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va.
Some educators support zero-tolerance policies only when alternative schools are available for suspended students.
``Most people think of required expulsion in terms of putting the child out of the school setting altogether,'' Mr. Butterfield says. ``But that's not necessarily the case.'' Many school districts offer alternative schools for violent students. Urban school districts pioneered these alternative settings, which offer smaller classes and more individual attention. Now the trend is moving to suburban and rural school districts.
At an American Federation of Teachers convention held this summer, union delegates approved a resolution calling on school districts to adopt zero-tolerance policies. But they stipulated that alternative schools are critical for the plan to work.
``There has to be a message that we are not going to tolerate certain behaviors,'' says John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. ``But if there's no place to send a student, what you have is a suspended student hanging out in the school playground.'' In some cases, students expelled under zero-tolerance policies may end up as dropouts. ``Youngsters who are bringing guns to schools are the very ones that are already at risk of dropping out of school,'' Ms. Welburn says. ``And we just push them right over the edge when we throw them out.''
Even the opponents of strict expulsion policies stress the need for disciplinary action when students bring weapons to school. But some educators oppose federal involvement.
``I think this is properly handled at the local level,'' says Wayne Sanstead, superintendent of public instruction in North Da-kota, where many people hunt. His ``philosophical opposition'' is so strong he would consider sacrificing federal funds rather than comply with the mandate.
Whether local school safety is beyond the jurisdiction of the federal government is the subject of a US Supreme Court case. Last week, the court heard an administration lawyer urge the court to uphold the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, which bans guns in and around schools. The act is being challenged as unconstitutional in US v. Lopez, a case involving a San Antonio high school student.
Many education organizations have filed briefs supporting the Gun-Free School Zones Act, seizing the opportunity to air concerns about school violence. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by next July.