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WHO SHOULD PUNISH GUN-TOTING STUDENTS: LOCAL BOARDS OR U.S.?

With an estimated 100,000 of America's 42 million schoolchildren - one in 420 - toting guns to class every day, what's the federal government to do?

Some say it should continue the "zero-tolerance" policy of requiring one-year suspensions for any student who packs a pistol to class. But others say local school boards are in a much better position to impose appropriate punishment and should be allowed to do so without interference from Washington.That's the quandary facing congressional negotiators reconciling House and Senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Under the Goals 2000 education bill enacted in March, school districts cannot share in federal education funds unless they impose a policy that prohibits guns in schools and requires one-year suspensions for violators.

But the pending $12 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act would supersede Goals 2000.

The Senate's bill would continue current policy, but the House version would let local school boards determine punishment.

Proponents of the tougher Senate version say there can be no compromise.

"Since 1990, shootings or hostage situations have been reported in schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia, and since '93 alone, guns in schools have resulted in at least 35 deaths and 92 injuries nationwide," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a coauthor of the provision.

"How can we expect anyone to learn if they look over and they see a .45 or a .38 tucked in someone's belt?" she asked. "They can't."

On the other side, Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., who authored the House version, called the Senate-passed version a "re-election gimmick."

"We're all against guns in schools," Miller said. But "the federal government is not the local school board."

The National Education Association, which provided the estimate of 100,000 guns being brought to the nation's schools each day, has remained neutral.

"We think they both get to the same point," said Michael Edwards, the NEA's manager of congressional relations.

The Senate-passed "zero-tolerance" version has the backing of the Clinton administration and the American Federation of Teachers.

The House bill has support from a dozen national groups, including those representing school boards and principals, as well as the National Parent Teacher Association and the Children's Defense Fund.