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CRIME AT SCHOOL: UTAH AHEAD OF THE GAME IN KEEPING STUDENTS SAFE

Next to home, school should be the safest sanctuary for children.

Instead, in many parts of the country, schools have become virtual war zones where children and teachers are assaulted, robbed, abused, intimidated and extorted from.Children have even become the targets of mentally deranged individuals who prey on the vulnerability of schools to carry out wanton, undirected murder.

The bully has always strutted the schoolyard, but today's violence has taken insidious new turns as drugs, weapons, gangs and a generally violent society impose their stamp on education.

Consider just two disturbing examples:

-Officials at Lindbergh Junior High in Long Beach, Calif., are constructing a 900-foot long, 10-foot high cement wall as a bullet deflector. Stray bullets from shoot-outs between rival drug dealers in nearby low-income housing pose an imminent danger to children in the schoolyard.

-Students and teachers must pass through metal detectors before entering schools in New York City's Harlem and in New Orleans.

Is Utah any different?

The short answer seems to be: Yes.

Salt Lake and Davis county educators say there is a threat of increasing violence. Gangs have proliferated in some communities, and some isolated incidents involving weapons in schools have been reported. But the consensus is that the state's problems are still relatively minor and ultimately manageable.

"Anybody who would walk into a school in Salt Lake City would have a sense of orderliness and safety. I'd invite anyone to try it," said Salt Lake Superintendent John W. Bennion. "Anyone who thinks Salt Lake schools are like Philadelphia, L.A. or Chicago doesn't understand. We have our problems, but it's nothing like those cities."

The Salt Lake Police Department does not keep statistics on school crimes as such, said Lt. Steve Chapman of Salt Lake's juvenile division. His feeling, however, is that there has been no significant increase.

Police and educators, however, are acutely aware of gangs attempting to stake out territory in the community.

Utah educators have adopted a no-gangs, no-graffiti, no-nonsense attitude that tries to keep any mention of gangs out of the schools. Salt Lake District has developed a community task force, including Bennion and Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Chabries, that shares gang information.

"It is our hope to limit the evolution into drug trafficking that has become so deadly in other cities," Bennion said.

Detective Mark Askerlund, a Salt Lake police officer assigned to the city's intermediate schools, said, "I have found very few of the fights, very few of the assaults, have been gang-related. It is usually just kids getting into a fight over girls, money, who has the better bike, who has the better stereo."

Jerry Nielsen, who heads Granite District's own police unit, said he doesn't keep a log of all incidents that occur in the schools. Most are handled by local police or the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department, but he senses that there is an increase in his part of the valley.

"We have gang members out there trying to mark territory. They are mainly trying to copy-cat the gangs in other areas. It's been a little slower to get into suburbs, but it is here."

He said major vandalism cases have decreased. Graffiti, a more recent form of vandalism and usually the first sign of gang activity, is cheaper to fix than broken windows and arson.

Nielsen said school problems are evenly divided between the east and west sides of the county.

Nancy Hardy, Salt Lake director of pupil services, believes any problem can happen at any school. Several years ago, when she was a counselor at a more affluent east-side junior high in the Granite School District, a boy brandished a gun at school.

Davis District officials said they have not noticed an increase in school violence. There has not been an attack on a teacher by a student in recent memory, a typical finding. By contrast, last year 250 teachers were assaulted in Philadelphia schools.

However, students were assaulted by teachers in two instances in Davis district schools. One of those teachers was dismissed under protest and the school eventually settled out of court. The teacher went elsewhere.

Elva Barnes, assistant principal at Bountiful Junior High School, said a recent confrontation between two groups of students caused one student to "bash another in the face." The offenders were suspended.

While she said she wouldn't consider them gangs, students associate in groups and have a gang mentality and that can sometimes escalate into conflict.

Jerry Peterson, Weber District assistant superintendent, said, "Gang problems aren't particularly evident, and we haven't had a lot of reports of violent acts. We are a little concerned with satanism. We are making efforts to have counseling for at-risk students," he said.

Peterson shares worries with other administrators who are more wary of the subtle influences of adolescent Satan worship than outright violence. They fear that interests may go beyond the Ouija board stage to the more violent forms of satanism.

At Murray High School, principal Richard Tranter took seriously rumors of noontime seances on the school grounds. The alleged rendezvous spot was staked out repeatedly, but nothing was ever found.

Principal Richard Haacke of Kearns High School said his concern is not so much with students but with former students, dropouts or friends of students who come to local high schools bent on drug dealing or other mischief. Some California gang members who have relatives in the Kearns area are having an effect, he said.

Principal Jim McCoy of Northwest Intermediate School said parents can also be a problem, though most strongly support a safe school environment.

"If a parent tells a kid to beat someone up, that (negative) value is reinforced. It's in conflict with school and society. Taking violence into your own hands is making two wrongs. Parents need to discourage their kids from fighting for any reason, and they need to utilize every office in the school to prevent fights," he said.

School counselors, psychologists and social workers also are involved in the effort to head violence off at the pass. Unfortunately, many districts have cut back counseling staffs in budget-trimming.

Salt Lake's Hardy, who served as president of a national organization of counselors, said that's a nationwide problem. High schools, for example, may have one counselor for every 400 students and only one social worker per school, while there are no counselors in many Utah elementary schools.

Hardy thinks the number of counselors in the Salt Lake schools would be adequate "if counselors had the opportunity to be counselors. Unfortunately, the counselors have to spend too much of their time doing clerical work, registering students and changing class schedules."

Utah's recent cases of school violence should be kept in context, Askerlund said.

"Salt Lake schools are safe. You are going to have acts (of violence) occur. They occurred when I was in school. They are going to occur long after I'm gone. You are going to acts of violence directed at an individual in the school or at the school, and I don't know how you'll ever prevent that."