October 2, 2000
As you know, Congress passed and the President signed into law, the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1994. This act requires States to enact laws that require their local educational agencies (LEAs) to expel for a period of at least one year students that have been found to have brought a firearm to school. The GFSA also requires that LEAs refer these students to local criminal or juvenile justice officials. All States have enacted provisions related to the GFSA and we have received reports concerning the implementation of the provisions for the past several school years.
Despite this good beginning, we continue to have concerns about the critically important issue of firearms in schools. As a parent and a grandparent, I have been intensely affected by the senseless tragedies that have occurred in schools around our country during the past few years. And data from polls and surveys confirm my personal reaction to the school shootings we have witnessed ? this education issue is of great concern to parents, students, and teachers across the country.
This letter is my personal request to each of you to redouble the efforts you have made in the past few years to address the issue of firearms in our schools. The information that follows discusses some concerns that have emerged about implementation and enforcement of the GFSA requirements.
LEA Implementation of GFSA Policies
The GFSA requires LEAs to provide an assurance of compliance to their State educational agencies (SEAs). We have permitted SEAs to collect those assurances in a manner that minimized burden at both the SEA and LEA levels.
Monitoring activities at both the Federal and States levels have identified some instances where the required policies concerning expulsion and referral were not in place even though the assurance of compliance had been furnished. Although the particular situations identified have been corrected, based on these findings, I request that each of you take steps to verify that in fact your LEAs have adopted the required expulsion and referral policies.
Enforcement of GFSA Policies
Adoption of the required GFSA policies is an important first step. But, as with any policy, its effectiveness is closely linked to the consistency of its implementation. Variations in reporting data and some anecdotal reports suggest that the required GFSA policies may not be implemented consistently?within LEAs, across LEAs within a State, and across the country.
I am concerned that some LEAs and some individual schools may not be consistently enforcing GFSA policies. I encourage you to implement procedures that should lead to more consistent enforcement. These procedures could include training and information dissemination activities to help improve knowledge about the requirements as well as monitoring activities that examine enforcement strategies and compare data concerning GFSA enforcement with related information such as data about expulsions.
Accuracy of GFSA Reports
Reports to SEAs and to the Department of Education are very important. They provide important information about firearms in schools ? information that can be used to assess the success of programs and strategies being used to keep firearms out of schools.
An analysis of data supplied to the Department by SEAs during the past few years points to some issues that deserve our attention. Some reports have contained incomplete results or missing data, even though the reporting requirements have been in place for a number of years. For example, some reports haven?t included data for all of a State?s LEAs; others have not been able to provide information about the nature of firearms found or have included expulsions for violations not related to the GFSA.
While reports supplied to the Department of Education provide important data that helps us understand the nature and extent of this problem from a national perspective, they play an even more important function at the State and local level. These data are a key source of information that will permit State and local officials to determine if the GFSA provisions are being enforced consistently in their jurisdictions. In the past, we have received reports that reflected no expulsions, even though newspaper accounts described a number of incidents concerning students and firearms at school. Other reports have raised questions about the use of the case-by-case expulsion provisions. In some cases, the number of events reflected on reports indicated a significant departure from prior reports. When we become aware of problems such as these, we follow up and require corrective action. However, you are in a better position to ensure the accuracy of the data. I encourage each of you to make certain that your staff has taken the necessary steps to collect required data and to carefully examine the data that is collected and aggregated at your agencies before it is submitted to the Department of Education.
Including "modified" expulsions in GFSA reports
In discussing concerns about the quality of data being included in GFSA reports, one area has emerged as an issue that requires clarification. As you know, the GFSA permits the chief administering officer of an LEA to modify, on a case-by-case basis, the expulsion requirement. Our existing nonregulatory guidance makes it clear that such modifications cannot be used to avoid compliance with the relevant State law. However, it appears that States are not reporting these modifications in a consistent manner. In some cases, SEAs and LEAs appear to be excluding these cases from GFSA reports submitted to the Department, while other SEAs and LEAs are including these cases in their reports.
In order to address this situation, we have submitted a modified data collection form to the Office of Management and Budget for review and clearance. This form will ask States to report the number of incidents in which a firearm has been brought to school by a student, rather than the number of expulsions resulting from such incidents. We hope that this modification will eliminate some of the confusion surrounding the use of the term "expulsion" that seems to exist. Information about the change has been added to the existing nonregulatory guidance for the GFSA; a revised package is included with this letter.
The Gun-Free Schools Act and the Gun-Free Schools Zones Act
Because these two Federal laws have similar names, significant confusion has arisen about the requirements contained in each.
The Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA) (18 U.S.C. 922(q)), is a criminal law generally enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The current GFSZA was enacted on September 30, 1996. It makes it a criminal offense for an individual knowingly to possess a firearm in a school zone. The 1996 revisions responded to the 1995 decision of the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Lopez , 115 S.Ct. 1624 (1995), which held the earlier version of the GFSZA unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress? authority under the Commerce Clause.
In contrast, the Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) (20 U.S.C. 8921) is an education statute administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Enacted on October 20, 1994 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it requires that each State receiving Federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have in effect a State law requiring local educational agencies to expel for a period of not less than one year any student who is determined to have brought a weapon to school. Each State?s law also must provide authority to the local educational agency to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis. Local educational agencies are required to refer to the criminal justice or juvenile delinquency system any student who brings a firearm to school.
Guns in Schools
I want to bring a final important issue to your attention for consideration. As you know, our non-regulatory guidance for the GFSA permits LEAs to determine if certain activities involving the use of firearms by students in school-sanctioned activities (e.g. hunter safety classes or school rifle teams) will be permitted in their schools. During the past year, I have become very concerned about those few instances when school facilities have been used as a site for gun shows and sales. I am also concerned by the occasional use of firearms as raffle prizes for school-related fundraising efforts. While the existing provisions of the GFSA do not specifically address these situations, I encourage each of you to carefully consider the message that such activities sends to our children and to determine if you wish to take action in your State about this issue.
I know that you share my concern about the crucially important issue of firearms in schools, and that you will continue to invest a significant effort in addressing this problem in your State. If you have detailed questions about implementation of the GFSA, please contact William Modzeleski, Director of our Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program at (202) 260-3954.
Richard W. Riley
Enclosures: Revised Nonregulatory Guidance