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Punishment's okay, but...

August 18, 1998

Aggravated assault of a teacher would become a felony under a proposal being advanced by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who'd also like to require schools to report the use of illegal drugs and sexual abuse to police. Schools do need to be safe, but in our view, a strategy that relies on punishment alone won't guarantee that.

The Ridge proposal follows attacks by students on classmates and teachers in five states, including Pennsylvania. Those incidents left 10 dead, many injured and a puzzled nation wondering what to make of it all.

There's been a lot of speculation about why this is happening now, and the list of possible causes includes everything from the increasing number of single-parent families to the growing amount of violence on TV and in the movies.

The Ridge proposal is good in that it sets limits; treating aggravated assaults on teachers as felonies would require suspects to be tried as adults. And the requirement that schools report drug and sexual abuse should give police an indicator of where problems are developing, since both indicate that students are having difficulty relating to each other normally.

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But once society has those warning signs in hand, it need not wait for the shooting to start. It ought to target those schools for some counseling that would attempt to convince students that they don't need to dose themselves with drugs to relate to each other, and that forcing themselves sexually on someone else is not the mark of a man, but the way of a cowardly bully.

Should such training be the school system's job? Of course not; home and family should be doing this task. But in five states, somebody didn't do the job well enough to keep people from being killed. And while punishment for such crimes should be swift and sure, punishment only occurs after something has happened, in this case something bad. Pass Ridge's bill, but amend it so that there's somebody trying to prevent those bad things before they happen.

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