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Growing Violence by Youths Leads to a National Debate Over School-Safety Measures

LAST week, a student carrying a .357 magnum revolver in his backpack shot and killed a classmate at Fairfax High School here.

Although it was ruled an accident, the killing shocked Los Angeles and sparked a national debate over extreme measures to prevent such incidents in the future. In part, the murder has drawn front-page headlines because it underscores a trend of violence among teenagers.

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Recently released statistics show there were more than 800 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County last year - a record number. Many of the gang members committing those murders are as young as nine years old. There also have been several widely publicized incidents of school violence across the nation recently:

* In Grayston, Ky., last week, a teenager surrendered after killing both a teacher and a custodian with a .38-caliber revolver, then holding 22 classmates hostage.

* In Lorain, Ohio, two teens plotted the death of their junior high school teacher, using a knife.

"If you call any major school district in the country you will find all of them have experienced a major increase of violent acts on school property in the past few years," says Peter Blauvelt, chairman of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. "I am talking bigger and better guns, knives, and even shotguns."

According to a 1991 survey by the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta - which considers guns in schools a public-health problem - 100,000 students across the country bring guns to school each day. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the country, reports that 1,403 weapons were confiscated during the 1991-1992 school year (See chart).

The figure was up 27 percent from the year before - an increase that law-enforcement officials say is mirrored across the country.

"We are seeing more acts of teenage violence and they are becoming more and more vicious," says E. O. (Red) McAllister, executive director of an institute that trains police officers for the Dade County, Fla., public schools.

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To combat that violence, communities across the nation are considering a variety of measures. Many are calling on the federal government to increase spending on school security, counseling, and other means to reduce on-campus crimes.

Sid Thompson, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools, announced Tuesday that the district will soon begin using metal-detectors to randomly screen students for weapons at 3 to 5 different high schools each day.

"I wish we could have one at every classroom door," says Barbara Boudreaux, a member of the Los Angeles school board.

One obstacle to widespread use of metal detectors is cost. Doorway-wide metal detectors cost about $3,000 to $4,000. Handheld models cost only $200 but require trained personnel to operate them and are less effective. "We can't afford it at this time," Ms. Boudreaux says.

There may also be legal obstacles. Some legal scholars contend that the metal detectors might violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure.

But perhaps the biggest problem with metal detectors, critics say, is that they simply may not work. "Kids learn fast how to thwart the system," says George Butterfield, deputy director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. For example, he says, students can elude detection by hiding weapons behind a belt buckle.

The only way to make the system fool-proof, Butterfield says, is to go to extremes. "It could get to the point where you are asking kids to disrobe while 2,000 others stand in line to get to class," he says.

Another program to curb violence among youths has been launched by the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Starting next month, the department will bring at-risk youths to their offices to witness the autopsies of slain gang members.

Instead of such extreme security measures, Butterfield says, "Schools need help in developing prevention strategies." His suggestions include having on-site counseling, improving surveillance of lockers and hallways, and training security personnel to develop a rapport with students.

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