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Sinbins revived for a dangerous age

New York sets the pace with tough policy to discipline violent pupils, reports Lucy Hodges.

New York City has revamped a previously discredited scheme for dealing with violence in schools. Under the proposal all students found to be carrying weapons will be removed from their schools for one year. Older pupils will be sent to four disciplinary academies, and the younger ones put in special disciplinary programmes.

The new policy turns the clock back 20 years to a period when there were separate schools for violent children. The fact that the previously discredited scheme has been dusted off for use today shows how desperate the authorities have become about violence in schools. For the past two decades headteachers have been allowed to decide their own punishments for armed or violent students, with the result that many students are suspended for a week or so and then allowed back into school.

The separate schools for violent children were dismantled 20 years ago by court order. They were criticised for being "sinbins" - dumping grounds for children with problems which offered little in the way of education.

New York City schools' chancellor Ramon Cortines said the plan was needed to "send a strong, clear message to our students, parents and staff that possessing or using weapons and engaging in violent behaviour will not be tolerated".

Such measures have also been demanded by the mayor of New York City, as well as teachers' and headteachers' unions. At the same time Cortines proposed to extend the ban on weapons at New York City schools to include box-cutters (implements for opening boxes), case-cutters and utility knives. The city already has imposed a ban on guns, daggers, kung fu stars, and bombs, among many other weapons. But it has discovered that box-cutters have become particularly fashionable in recent months. Since September almost 700 box- cutters have been confiscated from pupils, some as young as eight.

It is envisaged that the new academies will take any pupil in grades 6 to 12 (those aged 11 to 18 years) who are found carrying a gun, knife, box-cutter or any other serious weapon in school. Children of kindergarten age could also face mandatory one-year suspensions and be put in alternative programmes. The new academies would cost about $2 million (Pounds 1.3m) a year each to run.

The proposal had a mixed reception. Children's advocates are worried that the idea will trample on students' rights. School board members say it is tough but necessary. Chancellor Cortines says that his new disciplinary academies will be quite different from the old reform schools and will concentrate on academic standards, family therapy, and on changing students' behaviour.

The plan is to establish four disciplinary schools for a total of 1,350 pupils. In proposing the plan, New York is going further than most other cities which are taking measures to tackle violence. Congress passed national legislation - the Gun-Free Schools Act - last year requiring districts to suspend students who bring any sort of gun to school. Kansas is the only state to have adopted the policy to date, but more than 100 school districts and other states are planning to follow suit. States have until next October to adopt the legislation. If they do not, they could lose federal education money.

Another government measure, now wending its way through Congress, would give money to school districts to make schools safer. The Clinton administration wanted to give $18 million to 19 districts that had significant crime, violence and disciplinary problems. It was envisaged that the money would go on conflict-resolution and peer-mediation counselling for crime victims, and on long-term prevention strategies. Up to 5 per cent of a grant could, for example, be used for metal detectors or security guards.

But this proposed legislation has run into trouble on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives voted to cut all but $10 million of the $482 million required for the programme. The Senate restored these cuts. A compromise will be reached in conference committee.

Under these new measures, one of the cities to receive a grant will be Chicago which is planning to use some of the money to set up teams specialising in security, education and training. Another is St Louis which will establish student mediation panels at each middle and high school, and will train parents and community education councils in conflict-management techniques.

President Clinton has made it clear how important he believes such grants are: "Every school-day thousands of America's children find themselves threatened - in playground arguments that may escalate into fistfights, or in confrontations with lethal weapons that may end in death or injury.

"Many just stay home rather than face the possibility of violence. We've got to turn that around, and we can. These grants are a start in reclaiming the schools. We cannot retreat."

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