FULTON - Gubernatorial candidate Jim Talent has unveiled a proposal designed to make schools safer. The initiative represents a shift in the focus of the Republican's bid, which has previously centered on fixing Missouri's highways.
Before a small group of educators at the Fulton High School library on Monday, Talent proposed giving schools state money to set up a pair of voluntary programs patterned after operations in Fulton and Blue Springs.
He also proposed expanding alternative schools where districts can place students who are disruptive in the classroom.
Democrat Bob Holden's campaign issued a statement criticizing Talent's congressional voting record on education, saying "it's great that he's finally addressing our public schools." T
In the Kansas City suburb, the Youth Outreach Unit (YOU) offers counseling and an alternative school to kids with severe disciplinary problems, using a mix of public and private funds.
Developed under a partnership between the city of Blue Springs, the school district and the police department, the program's 16-member staff includes a psychologist, a social worker and nine police officers.
When kids are referred to the program either by schools, courts or parents, counselors assess the problem, then assign the student to a case manager. Depending on the problem's severity, the program provides six to 26 weeks of counseling.
Talent said the group offers an alternative to the two organizations that are over-burdened with student disciplinary issues: police and schools. The problems often are not severe enough for the police, he said, and too difficult for schools to handle.
Joe Mick, YOU project coordinator, said only seven percent of children who complete the program later commit the same crime as compared to the 39 percent national average.
The program, he said, has an annual budget of about $1 million and handles about 1,000 kids a year. Talent's plan would provide $7 million in matching funds per year for schools to start their own versions, and to open or expand alternative schools.
Talent was careful to stress that his proposal is both flexible and optional. A district, he said, can pick any part of the plan they want but must gain considerable local support, in the form of police cooperation and private funding, to be eligible.
The Fulton school district and local juvenile court are using computers to speed up notification when students are charged with serious crimes. Talent's plan would spend $1.5 million to help install the project statewide.
"In this day and age, you need to know when a child comes in to a district, what his background is," Talent told the educators.
Mark Enderle is the superintendent of Fulton schools. His district was approached last summer by the state juvenile court system to pilot the project.
He said communication under the program -- in place a year -- is much more efficient and reliable, but it is hard to say if it will make a real difference in school safety.
"If we were made aware two or three days sooner of a potential problem, it could make a difference," he said. "But it's difficult to say if it has had an impact in Fulton."
Other than using e-mail, the pilot is similar to the current way schools communicate with the courts. If an administrator sees red flags in a transfer student's records, he contacts the courts for a criminal background check. Communication occurred by mail or phone, methods that, Enderle said, were slow and unreliable.
He said implementing the program, which rose from a Democrat-sponsored 1995 crime bill, cost only about $10,000 to $15,000 because the district already had updated computers.
Talent's initiative is similar to Holden's plan in that both proposals stress the role of the community in fighting school violence. But Holden's plan also holds parents and the community responsible for conditions that contribute to crimes.
Holden's plan promises $5 million to communities to start local projects. It includes expanding character education programs and increasing funding for alternative schools for disruptive students.