As Americans struggle to understand what seems to have been a plague of school shootings, an Education Department report suggests the problem may not be as widespread as the headlines suggest.
The number of students expelled for bringing firearms to school dropped 31 percent in the 1997-98 school year, according to the report, which is based on disciplinary data gathered from states.
"Sometimes it's hard to balance the horrific with the notion that schools are safe, because there is a common misperception that schools are not a safe place to be _ that's just not the case," said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.
However, educators and school administrators cautioned against overconfidence.
The report may be skewed because figures from some states for the 1996-97 school year include all weapons-related expulsions, not just firearms.
People should not think that this problem has been solved, said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Houston thinks schools are safer because administrators are working with police and parents to make them secure. But schools are still vulnerable, he said.
A succession of school shootings has punctuated the national news during the last two years. Two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., before killing themselves on April 20, and in May, a student shot six people at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga. All those victims survived.
The Education Department reported that during the 1997-98 school year 3,930 students were expelled for bringing weapons to school, down from 5,724 a year earlier. There are about 52-million students in public schools.
Stephen Yurek, general counsel, with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, thinks students are bringing fewer lethal weapons to schools because of stricter security measures such as weapons checks and metal detectors.
"However, we need to remain vigilant, because all it takes is one student to bring a gun to school and inflict tragedy, as we've seen in the last two years," he said.
Education Secretary Richard Riley echoed that thought at a news conference Tuesday in Washington. "Communities still need to continue to use comprehensive approaches to keeping schools, students and educators safe," he said.
Most of the expulsions in the 1997-98 school year, 57 percent, took place in high schools; 33 percent took place in junior highs and the remaining 10 percent were in elementary schools.
California and Texas were the only states with more than 300 expulsions, 382 and 424, respectively. Florida schools expelled 153 students. Wyoming reported no expulsions.
Pennsylvania led the country in elementary school expulsions, with 50.
The highest concentration of weapons-related expulsions was in South Dakota, with 0.327 expulsions per 1,000 students. Others with relatively serious problems proportionate to their size include Delaware and Oregon, both with 0.226 expulsions per 1,000 students.
Handguns accounted for 62 percent of the expulsions and rifles 7 percent. The remainder involved such weapons as bombs, grenades and starter pistols, the report said.
The department's report measures the progress of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated that states pass laws requiring school districts to expel students who bring firearms to class.
Meanwhile Tuesday, an independent education group released a survey suggesting fewer teens feel safe in school.
The "State of Our Nation's Youth" survey by the Horatio Alger Association found one-third of public school students said they always feel safe in school, down from 40 percent in 1998.
The findings were based on mailed questionnaires returned by more than 1,000 teens. The surveys were mailed April 22, two days after the Columbine shootings, and Riley said the findings conflicted with other recent student surveys and may have been skewed by the timing.
_ Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.