New York to set up schools for gun-toting children

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SO MANY New York City schoolchildren are bringing guns and knives into the classroom that the Governor of New York state, Mario Cuomo, and the city's mayor, Rudy Guiliani, are planning to build special reform schools where attendance for the offenders would be mandatory.

The plan revives a similar project for violent troublemakers that was dropped in the mid-1970s because the special schools were filled mostly with minority students. The schools were also hopelessly underfunded for the task they had to perform, and the system was eventually abolished by court order.

Now nine new reform schools have been proposed with a capacity of 1,350 students, but they would hardly meet requirements. This year, the number of assaults, robberies, weapons possessions, harrassment and other offences in New York's public schools reached a record high of 17,046, a 25 per cent jump on the 1993 figures.

Of nearly 4,000 weapons seized, 146 were handguns, four were rifles, 1,643 were knives and 1,402 were classified as dangerous instruments.

Governor Cuomo, who is seeking a fourth term in next month's mid-term elections, said recently: 'You ought to be able to establish schools where you can put kids who carry guns and otherwise upset things . . . you ought to be able toseparate violent kids from non- violent kids.'

Mr Guiliani, a former prosecutor, is in favour of persuading prosecutors and judges to enrol students convicted of felonies in these reform schools instead of sending them to prison. The idea was welcomed by the teachers' union.

However, the plan was criticised by lawyers who represent schoolchildren in such cases. 'The whole history of providing things like this is that they don't turn out the way they are described,' said Joan Harrington, associate director of Advocates for Children. 'They end up poorly staffed and poorly run. This is going to be just another place to warehouse youngsters.'

According to the proposal, attendance at the special reform schools would be mandatory for any student caught with a gun or an illegal knife, or one 'who uses any weapon in an aggressive act'. The curriculum would focus on 'self-esteem building, long and short-range goal setting, establishing a locus of control, dealing with bureaucracies, and improving peer and authority relationships'.

The incident that triggered the plan was the accidental shooting by a 16-year-old of another teenager in a Brooklyn school on 14 September. Both youths had been transferred to the school after disciplinary problems at other schools, and both had criminal records.

The fastest-growing segment of America's criminal population is juveniles, and a growing number of judges are in favour of tough reforms.

In a recent poll, 91 per cent of judges wanted the authority to incarcerate juveniles aged over 18. Two out of five judges wanted 14- year-olds on murder charges to be tried as adults.