August 24, 1999
Honorable Henry J. Hyde
Dear Congressman Hyde:
I am writing to express my serious concerns relating to certain provisions of the two juvenile crime bills recently passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively, H.R. 1501, the "Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1999" and S. 254, the "Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999." Improving the effectiveness of the Nation's juvenile justice system is a goal we all share, and is vitally important to the maintenance of our schools as safe and orderly centers of learning. Because the overwhelming majority of the provisions of both bills relate directly to the operation of the juvenile justice system, I defer overall to the Attorney General with respect to both bills.
However, both bills also contain a variety of provisions, added during floor debate, that would directly affect the administration of Federal education programs at the elementary and secondary education level as well as the ability of local school systems throughout the Nation to provide a safe, high-quality education. I urge the conferees not to include these provisions in the final bill, but to consider them, instead, as part of a more comprehensive and deliberate review of Federal elementary and secondary education programs that will occur as the Congress debates the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). In this connection, I urge the Congress to act favorably on the President's ESEA reauthorization proposal, the "Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999," and, in particular, the many improvements that proposal would make to Title IV of the ESEA, the "Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act." If, however, the conferees feel compelled to address these issues in conference, I urge you to delete or modify the provisions described below.
IDEA. My strongest objections are to the amendments in both bills to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These amendments would allow school personnel in public elementary and secondary schools, for the first time, to suspend or expel children with disabilities from their schools for unlimited periods of time, without any educational services (including behavioral intervention services), and without the impartial hearing now required by the IDEA, for carrying or possessing a "gun or firearm" (Senate) or a "weapon" (House) to, or at, school or a school function. Congress need not, and should not, make these changes. Just two years ago, Congress, after thoughtful deliberation, amended the IDEA to give school officials new tools to address the issue of children with disabilities bringing such weapons to school, or otherwise threatening teachers and other students. For example, school officials may remove, for up to 45 days, a child with a disability who takes a weapon to school, and may request a hearing officer to similarly remove a child who is substantially likely to injure himself or others, if the child's parents object to the removal. Furthermore, the IDEA currently allows
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hearing officers to keep these students out of the regular educational environment beyond 45 days if they continue to pose a threat to the rest of the student body. Finally, the 1997 amendments to the IDEA help prevent dangerous situations from arising, by encouraging schools to address misbehavior before it becomes serious, through the provision of behavioral interventions and other appropriate services. I am convinced that these new tools will be effective if given a chance to work.
In contrast, the amendments now under consideration would deny vital educational services to children with disabilities who are removed from school, including behavioral interventions that are designed to prevent dangerous behavior from recurring. Continued provision of educational services, including these behavioral interventions, offers the best chance for improving the long-term prospects for these children. Discontinuing educational services is the wrong decision in the short run, and, in the long run, will result in significant costs in terms of increased crime, dependency on public assistance, unemployment, and alienation from society.
Also, the applicable definition of "weapon" (current section 615(k)(10)(D) of the IDEA), as used in the House bill, is very broad and open to subjective application -- covering anything, such as a rock picked up on the way to school or a baseball bat intended for an after-school ball game -- that is "readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury," whether or not it is designed as a weapon and without regard to the student's intention in bringing it to school. A statutory standard this broad is sure to lead to inconsistent application at the local level and widespread confusion.
The exclusion of children with disabilities from school -- without the impartial due-process hearing and the continued services that the IDEA now requires -- is the wrong response. I urge you to reject these amendments to the IDEA.
Religious Expression. Both bills contain amendments relating to the expression of religious beliefs at public schools. This Administration has a strong record of protecting religious expression in schools. In 1995, the President directed the Attorney General and me to issue guidelines that would help schools preserve the religious freedom of students. I sent these guidelines to every school district in the Nation in 1995 and again last year, to ensure that parents, teachers, students, and school officials understand that schools need not be religion-free zones. These guidelines make clear that schools may not forbid students from expressing their religious views or beliefs solely because of their religious nature, and that any student in an American public school may pray, bring a Bible to school, say grace at lunch, or voluntarily participate in "see you at the flagpole" gatherings. In addition, I share the Department of Justice's concerns over the constitutionality of the provisions in H.R. 1501 and S. 254.
Internet Filtering. The House bill contains an amendment that would require elementary and secondary schools and libraries receiving universal-service assistance to select, install, and use filters that block access to child pornographic and obscene materials, as well as materials deemed harmful to minors, on computers with Internet access and to certify to the Federal Communications Commission that they have done so. A school or library that fails to meet these requirements would be liable to repay immediately the full amount of all universal-service assistance it received after the date of its failure to comply.
I strongly support the goal of protecting children from inappropriate material on the Internet. However, I do not believe the House provision would effectively accomplish this goal. As written, the House provision could result in the blocking of material that may be appropriate for educational and other uses, raising constitutional concerns, and would place a disproportionate burden on our poorest and most rural schools and libraries.
Appropriately crafted legislation would empower schools to protect children from unsuitable material while also protecting First Amendment values. Accordingly, I support a provision that would require every school and library that receives assistance from the universal service fund to certify that it has developed and implemented a plan to protect children from inappropriate material on the Internet. These plans should be developed in consultation with parents and other interested parties so that schools and libraries can adopt local approaches that best serve the needs of their students and communities. I would be pleased to work with the conferees to develop such a provision.
Safe Schools. The Senate bill would expand the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 -- which requires school districts to expel from school for at least one year any student who brings a firearm to school -- to require States to pass a law that would compel the same punishment for students who possess at school a "felonious quantit[y] of an illegal drug." Clearly, the presence of illegal drugs at school is unacceptable. However, I oppose this provision as drafted. First, I do not favor expanding the number of students who are expelled from school for long periods of time -- for the sake of the students themselves, and their communities. Many students who are expelled for a long period of time never return to school, which ends their education and casts them troubled and ill-prepared onto the streets. We cannot afford to lose these children. Secondly, expelling students in this manner based on whether the amount of illegal drugs they possessed at school did, or did not, constitute a felony under State or Federal law would not only lead to inconsistent results -- and confusion -- across the country in the application of this Federal requirement, it would force school administrators to become expert in the application of criminal law and to function, in effect, as prosecutors.
I believe that the criminal justice system should be brought to bear vigorously on any student who brings illegal drugs to school. Accordingly, I believe a better approach would be to require schools that have not already done so to adopt and enforce sanctions against students who bring illegal drugs to school, and to make it mandatory that school authorities refer to the appropriate law-enforcement authorities any student who brings an illegal drug to school, whether felonious or not.
The Senate bill would also amend current Titles IV and VI of the ESEA to expressly permit school districts to use an unlimited amount of their resources under those two titles to "purchase school security equipment," such as metal detectors. While such equipment can be an important part of local efforts to make schools safe, it is vital that school districts continue to look at a variety of other approaches to addressing their individual needs, because we know that metal detectors alone will not make schools safe. Our reauthorization proposal for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program would provide school districts additional flexibility to purchase such equipment. I urge the conferees to omit the Senate provision from the final bill, so that the
Congress and the Administration can work together to address this issue as part of the pending reauthorization of the entire Safe and Drug-Free Schools program and the rest of the ESEA.
Thank you for the opportunity to present these views.
The Office of Management and Budget advises that there is no objection to the submission of this report from the standpoint of the Administration's program.
Richard W. Riley
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