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More schools step up vigilance against hate crimes

Amid rising concern, many districts have already started preventive

The words conjure images of burning crosses on front lawns, racist graffiti in city neighborhoods, and men with shaved heads stomping through rallies in steel-toed boots. But hate crimes, parents and educators worry, are also on the rise in school quads and halls across the US.

Many school districts nationwide have already begun programs to help deter students from targeting people solely because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

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With an increased focus on school safety after shootings in Colorado and Georgia, experts say such efforts will only grow. A first step for educators is to figure out how serious a threat hate crimes are on campus. Local officials have only recently started keeping hate-crime data.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," says Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium of Violence Research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

And sorting through what is a crime driven by prejudice and what is simply teenage bullying is difficult. "Boundaries are not well defined and are likely to be shifting as we become more sensitized to the issue," Mr. Blumstein says.

Last month, in one of the first indicators for the nation, a Los Angeles County commission announced that hate crimes in schools and colleges there jumped 15 percent in 1998 - even as similar offenses in the general population dropped 6.2 percent. Nearly two-thirds of these crimes were committed at elementary, middle, and high schools.

The number of these crimes - 46 from a student population of 1.5 million in Los Angeles County - sounds small. And commission staffers say the increase may have resulted from more accurate reporting of crimes. "It's not necessarily the tip of the iceberg, [but] it's enough to be worried about," says Ron Wakabayashi, the commission's executive director.

Indeed, any uptick is being viewed with caution by experts around the US. After all, L.A. is a trend-setter in the educational community.

"Some of the things people in the rest of the country are just beginning to deal with L.A. dealt with years ago," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

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Prompted by the potential for conflict among the district's students - which include members of 92 language groups - Los Angeles Unified began antibias programs in the early 1980s.

The programs are aimed at conflict resolution. Teachers and administrators receive specialized training, and crisis teams respond to emergencies. Some schools have even adopted uniforms to reduce gang rivalry and to take away clothing as a symbol of economic status.

"Hate crimes are the outcome of a process that begins much more innocently - not understanding differences which lead to discord," Mr. Houston says. "You can break the chain at any link, but it's easier at the beginning than ... at the end."

To break these links, other areas have begun programs as well:

*The New Jersey Department of Education's Project Pride offers conflict-resolution training for students and staff.

*In Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District and five other districts sponsor El Hogar de la Paz (The Home of Peace). It holds teacher and student seminars, offers peer counseling, and has a student-developed antihate Web site.

*The Facing History and Ourselves Foundation in Boston, Chicago, New York, and other cities works with teachers to help students understand issues of intolerance and compassion through study of the Holocaust.

Indeed, accepted notions of who's doing the hating - and why - may be off the mark, say others. "The public tends to understand hate crimes as [the acts] of supremacists of some kind, but a lot of it is just intolerance within our communities ... not necessarily organized or ideological," notes Mr. Wakabayashi.

To some, hate crimes are a symptom of a changing adolescent world. "Kids are more separated than they used to be," Houston says. "They're exposed to some of the cultural differences other generations weren't, but they want to pull more into their own groups."

Technology isolates many in activities such as video games, he adds. "We are at risk of becoming a 'narrow-cast' culture."

Despite these and other challenges, though, Wakabayashi thinks Los Angeles is on the right track. "I don't think we've had diversity on this scale in the history of the planet. It's happening worldwide, but we're in the forefront."

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