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Public concern over student indiscipline may be right on target

``MINOR crime is a major problem.'' With those words, Steve Reiss put his finger on one of today's fundamental problems. Mr. Reiss, an assistant professor of law at New York University, was quoted in the Monitor last week in connection with the case of Bernhard Goetz, the alleged ``subway vigilante'' who opened fire on four would-be assailants in December.

One must not, of course, overlook major crime. Although the FBI reports that serious crime (including murder, arson, and robbery) declined 7 percent in 1983, it is still, in a society purporting to be free and healthy, a serious stigma.

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But so is minor crime -- the cheesy little evils done along that murky border where rudeness shades into misdemeanor and where hassles escalate into violence.

Sociologists may differ over the stimuli that spark criminal activity. But most agree that the recent decline in crime rates is due in large part to one simple thing: demographics. FBI figures show that 51 percent of those charged with crimes in 1983 were under age 25. More than anything else, the post-baby-boom decline in that age group appears to have lessened the crime rate.

Yet if the young are the more apt to drift into criminal acts, they are also most amenable to the sort of counsel and training that can help them avoid crime. They are, in short, ripe for education. And it is just here -- if the figures in the table published above are any guide -- that the views of the elected officials part company with the public's perceptions. Asked in a survey to name the major problems facing the schools, members of school boards overwhelmingly cited financial difficulties: lack of money, and (since school dollars are tied to student head counts) declining enrollments. Asked the same question, the public cited lack of discipline, drug use, and low standards -- all of which would seem to have a bearing on criminality.

Why this wholesale distinction? How could it be that two groups -- one of which is, in fact, the elected representative of the other -- can take such divergent views of the same thing? There are several explanations. One explanation is that school-board members' are responsible for getting a job done. Their daily concerns center on revenues and expenditures, as they seek to hire and support professionals who will give them good schools. The public, on the other hand, is weighing less the process than the result. And what it sees is a group of problems centering, fairly or unfairly, upon indiscipline.

Unfairly, perhaps, if you consider a second explanation for the gap in perceptions: the influence of news media, especially TV. Few things are less sensational, less photogenic, and more difficult to feature in a one-minute report than fine schools, where the texture of the day is woven out of the warp and woof of ideas. Conversely, a lunchroom brawl, or any other sign of indiscipline, lends itself nicely to the evening news -- with obvious impact upon public perceptions.

The difficulty with both explanations, however, lies in their assumption that the public is either misguided or deluded -- an assumption which, in a democracy, should always be suspect. In fact, the public's concern with school discipline is consistent: Lack of discipline has ranked No. 1 in 15 of the 16 annual school surveys taken by the Gallup Organization.

Can that many people, for that many years, be entirely wrong? If not, what is this poll telling us?

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In the end, I think, it may be saying some of the same things that the case of the ``subway vigilante'' is saying. The public may well have grasped, almost intuitively, a fundamental point: Minor crime on the streets is intimately bound up with indiscipline in the schools. Habits of disobedience, insolence, and laziness, if allowed to develop in the classroom, translate rather naturally into rudeness, roughness, and violence elsewhere.

Any lessons here? Two seem paramount. First, school-board members and professional educators need to take careful note of what is a very strong call for tighter discipline -- for inculcating respect for authority and habits of obedience, without which there can be little real learning. Second, the public must recognize the consequences of its intuitions: that education can have a powerful effect on crime rates and that taxpayers, whether or not they have school-age children of their own, benefit directly from strong public schools and should vote the funds necessary to support them.

As they try to tackle crime, citizens can beef up police forces. They can even turn themselves into gun-toting vigilantes. How much better, though, to ask themselves a wonderfully unanswerable question -- ``Where does crime go when you don't commit it?'' -- and work to establish an educational system that makes criminal behavior increasingly unthinkable. A Monday column -- 30 --{et