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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release July 3, 1996
                           PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

12:23 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: And a cheerful good afternoon to you all, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the White House. Most of you know that the President has been doing a lot of thing that are helping us meet the challenge of keeping our kids safe in communities around this country -- a whole host of things that he has articulated this year and that really reflect work he's done both as President, and dating back to the days that he served as governor of Arkansas, when he paid special attention to the problem of school truancy.

That's the subject the President will address today when he speaks before the National Education Association. And in advance of that speech, which is happening in a short while, I thought it'd be useful for you to have a chance to question the Secretary of Education, Dick Riley, who is always welcome here, and we're delighted to have you here, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you, Mike. It's a pleasure to be with you. I have Bill Modzeleski is here, too, he is the Director of my Safe and Drug Free Schools Program.

The President is releasing today a manual to combat truancy that will be sent to all of the school districts in the country. I think it's important. It's timely. Let me mention three facts that explain why the release of the manual is important.

First of all, this September we're going to have more young people in our nation's public and private schools than at any time in the nation's history -- 51.7 million students. That's a record and research indicates that that's going to continue to climb -- something I keep talking about and people don't seem to lock into the importance of this growing enrollment, commonly called the baby boom echo, but really it's more than that, it's a constant trend upward.

And the second fact is that while our nation's overall crime rate is going down, and that appears encouraging, the juvenile crime rate is going up. And drug use among 8th graders has been on the rise for the last four years. Those are very bad indicators of things that are happening.

A third point is that truancy, the absence from school with no reason, an improper absence, is the first sign of trouble in terms of education. Regardless of what we're doing in education, it's important for us to look at those indicators that show us that things are troublesome out there. So when you make public policy I think it's very important to look at the facts and reflect on what is going to happen. And what we see in the very near future are a lot of people in school, a lot of teenagers who will need our help in going forward.

I know that many law enforcement officials are already very concerned about this large increase of enrollment, and also the trends in truancy.

So you need to start early to prevent trouble. And truancy certainly is what I would call a blinking red light that tells us that a young person is going down the wrong road and they're getting disengaged with the important parts of education. Truancy, as this manual notes, is then the first sign often of a young person who's having trouble and beginning to give up hope. The manual also tells us that high school dropouts, which is the next stage after truancy, are two and a half times more likely to be on welfare than high school graduates. The employment prospects of dropouts also are not good at all. It's about two times, or half as many, in terms of high school graduates as dropouts.

So it's very important right now to put solid prevention programs in place to help parents and schools to come together with law enforcement -- a very important part of it is working closely with law enforcement to keep young people in school. And I want to see principals and teachers and parents and law enforcement officials really tune into this idea of the importance of good truancy programs.

Our department announced yesterday a $10 million discretionary grant program to come out of our Safe and Drug Free Schools program. And it will deal with demonstration projects -- 25 grants to go to schools or community groups to design and operate programs to deal with truancy or removing guns from schools, drug prevention, bullying and other forms of intimidation. All of those four things are related -- truancy, of course, a very important part of them. Those grants will range from $300,000 to $500,000 each. Schools and community groups will have until August 2 of 1996 to submit applications, and then the awards will be made by September the 30th. So that's something that we put in the Federal Register yesterday.

And I'd be happy to respond to questions. And, as I say, Bill Modzeleski is here likewise.

Q Mr. Secretary, what is it about the timing of this announcement? Truancy, obviously, didn't develop overnight, it's been a continuing problem for years, for decades perhaps. Why now?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I mentioned a couple of reasons. Now, we're having this swelling number of students coming in this fall. We know that all of the factors that we're interested in truancy impacts, whether it's achievement or dropouts or whatever it is -- preparing students for careers or college or whatever. Everything we're interested in this deals with it.

Why now? School starts now in a couple of months. We think it's a very important time for this coming together of parents and teachers and principals, schools with law enforcement to really begin to plan for prevention programs or strong law enforcement programs and how they're going to do that. This gives them models from the various states and school districts that have the best working models. And we think that will be very, very helpful for this coming fall as the school starts.

Q But, more to the point, my question is, why in 1996 and not in 1995 or '94 or '93, when you were in office, this problem was obvious then as it is now?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, it is. And people have been talking about truancy for years and I really have felt like we didn't give enough attention to it. We kind of -- a lot of people had a tendency to say, we know these kids are troubled kids, they're out of the schools, and let's go ahead and we can handle school better with them out of the system. That's not an answer. And I think it is time for us to face up to that.

The President, of course, when he was governor, dealt with it. He thought it was important then. He had some programs where parents were punished or fined if they had consistent problems with truancy and they didn't do anything about it, and some ways to deal with punishing children, students themselves. So it's not a new thing. He was dealing with it back then. He spoke to the governors and the CEOs about it when he was in New York. But we've got a new school year coming. We've got lots of problems. We're trying to work on all the different education angles and this is a very important angle.

Q Mr. Secretary, I don't want to sound too cynical about this, but isn't it just ironic that you come out with this when the NEA is in town?

SECRETARY RILEY: I don't necessarily think that's anything ironical about that. This is a group of teachers, of course, and the President is talking about a very important education matter. I think it'll be very helpful for teachers to hear this message.

As I say, sometimes one of the concerns is that teachers don't want to deal with the troubled, troublesome kids -- often, usually because they don't have the support system to handle it. And I think the message to teachers is very important. This is a problem we've got to deal with. These kids are out here and if you look at the numbers it just blows my mind to think how many -- 4,000 unexcused absences in Milwaukee -- you know, that's a major education problem -- Pittsburgh, 3,500; Philadelphia, 2,500. You can imagine Chicago and New York, LA, all of these major cities and others, too. That's a great segment of students that should be in those classrooms that those teachers are teaching. So I think it's a very appropriate audience for the President to present this to.

Q Mr. Secretary, is the truancy rate growing?

SECRETARY RILEY: It's hard for us to say. One of the things that we note in here is the lack of national data. Every state is different, every state has different laws, every state counts truancy differently -- not all of them, but certainly a lot of different ways of counting them. And so it's awful difficult for us to say whether it's growing rapidly or some. Certainly we've got more students involved. It is a major problem.

I would say probably it's as high now as its ever been, in terms of percentages. Bill, do you have any --

MR. MODZELESKI: Most of the local education agencies feel the rate is increasing, but data is not there to really look at it at a national -- on a national basis.

Q I mean, are there individual states that they're showing? I mean, is there a state number?

MR. MODZELESKI: There is locals. And we've listed some local cities in the manual.

SECRETARY RILEY: But that's part of the problem that you're pointing out. And it really -- while people in the local school districts have been talking about it, as far as a national problem, it really has not been dealt with as such. And it's difficult to deal with it as such. And that's why we're handling it with these guidelines, examples of what's working in other states and data about it and putting all that together, what seems to be the proper criteria. And these five points seem to our research people to work, these five criteria here that we list.

But it's very difficult to get a national hold on it. And we're not trying to control it nationally, that's why we're handling it in this way.

Q Are you speaking of a day or so, cutting classes? Or when you speak of truancy, do you mean several days, do you mean a whole semester?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, a student who misses school without excuse is truant. So that's a truant day. Of course, a week or two weeks is that much more serious than one day, but it is truant if they've just missed one day without excuse.

Q Sir, is there a federal interest in this? Isn't this about as local and as state a problem as it gets? Does the federal government really want to be dealing with punishing students who are truant? I mean, I just --

SECRETARY RILEY: No, no, we don't. Absolutely not. And that's the way we're handling it like it is. We think it's a national problem, it's a national issue. But it's handled state and local. And that's the way we are handling it. And what we're doing is sharing with other school districts what is working in school districts. They can find a school district that is similar to their size or that has problems similar to their problems, and they can then contact that school district or contact us and we can share that information with them.

This seems to be working in Milwaukee and this might be a good idea. These criteria seem to be things that every school district is working with and seems to work well. Now, when we did the uniforms, we did the same kind of thing and listed some school districts where it was working well. And several of them have informed us that they were just covered up with inquiries. And it shows there's a great need out there -- people really do want information.

And really, nationally is the only way you can put the information together, even though it's local control. So the fact is the school districts we listed on the school uniforms said they got just thousands of inquiries. So it shows the really -- people want to find out what's working well and what works best.

Q Mr. Secretary, what's the status of the uniform program, since you brought it up? Is that catching on? We haven't heard much since the President announced it a few months ago.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, there's enormous interest in it. Again, it's like this. It wasn't like a federal program, but it's just information of what works well. And no question about some areas that have uniforms are really having an improvement in the discipline situation. And there's enormous interest in it. And I think there's all kinds of things happening in that.


MR. MODZELESKI: I was just going to mention is that Norfolk is one of the areas where there was a tremendous interest in uniforms, and we;re reluctant to get any more phone calls. But on the uniform issue is that, while there is not a whole lot of data, is that we have sent out the 16,000 copies of the uniform manual. And the phone calls and the letters that we are getting back is that there is a significant interest on local school districts across the country in adopting uniform policies.

And so we envision that, come September 1996 for the opening of the '96-'97 school year, that you will have more school districts adopting uniform policies than there were in the previous year. How many is going to be difficult to tell because of the way our local systems are set up. They don't report to the federal government saying that they have a uniform policy.

The other issue here is that what has happened across the United States is that uniform policies have been adopted by individual schools within a district, rather than by a district by district basis. There's only one school system in the country -- Long Beach, California -- that has an actual district-wide uniform policy. For the most part, individual schools are adopting the policy, not school systems.

Q Secretary Riley, in this election year alone on education initiatives you've come out for uniforms, against truancy, for 14 years in school. What's next? Are there other programs that are being contemplated?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I don't have any in my line of delivery right today. Certainly, we're thinking of any number of things, but I don't have anything that I know that we're going to make a special initiative about.

I'll tell you, in education, initiatives matter. This is not an area where you need to pass a law to have everything happen. And you don't need regulations. We're cutting back on regulations. And that's why handling these education matters in this way seems to be working. And that is sharing ideas with districts -- what works, putting some innovative thinking out there, letting people think about. People out there in these school district board meetings and so forth are really struggling with a lot of these problems.

So we think that part of the federal role should be this kind of initiative. Parent involvement is very important. We started with 40 or 50 organizations, we're over 700 now. It's enormous interest out there. And all of the polls are showing people are very much interested in education. This is how we think we can provide some leadership in it.


Q Mr. Secretary, isn't truancy more of a problem in poverty stricken inner-city areas than across the board in suburban areas and rural areas? And if that's the case, then why this broad, 16,000 copies issue of manual to every conceivable kind of student?

SECRETARY RILEY: Truancy, of course, there would be more truants where there are more students. And then that's true, of course, of the crowded urban areas. But it is a problem also in rural areas and in suburban areas. It is an indication that the student is not engaged and then, oftentimes, more serious problems than that. And those problems and that disengagement is not limited just to poor, urban areas. Sometimes those are areas where you need more help. Sometimes the lack of parent support is more prevalent where there are poor people and parents are working two jobs or whatever. And support is a very important part of this.

One of these points, for example, where a community is dealing with truancy is kind of a tension that develops on the idea of incentives for parental responsibility. Parents play a very important part of this. What should you do? Should you punish the parents? Or should you support them? Or should you do some of both? The number three of the criteria kind of explains that tension that's out there. So these aren't easy issues to deal with.

Q Did you say before that one of the problems with truancy, in fact, is that some school districts prefer not to crack down on students?

SECRETARY RILEY: No, I didn't say that. What I indicated is --

Q -- get rid of them.

Q Well, it's easier, though.

SECRETARY RILEY: What I indicated is, yes. What I indicated is when children, students are not in school that are troubled students, obviously, you don't have to deal with them in the classroom. I think that's very apparent.

Q Are you finding, in fact, that's how some districts are dealing with it, by not cracking down?

SECRETARY RILEY: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. But I think, over the years, those of us who deal with public policy need to try to make sure those kids are not the forgotten part of the school system. And the complicated part and out on the street, as the President has said, is not an answer to a kid that's having trouble in school. It is not an answer.

Q Who's selling drugs to the --

Q Wait a minute. Hang on.

Q Okay.

Q You mentioned polls. Did the administration or the campaign do any polling on this question? And also, as a follow to that, did the President's political adviser, Dick Morris, have any discussion in whether or not this was an appropriate proposal or appropriate timing to come out with this? In other words, was he involved in discussion of this in any way?

SECRETARY RILEY: We've done lots of polling on educational issues. I don't know of any specific --

Q The Education Department --

SECRETARY RILEY: No, not the Education Department. But certainly, polling is taking place on all of the issues. And education is always one of them -- the environment and other issues.

Other than that, I don't know the answer to your question. I haven't, myself, dealt directly on this particular issue with Dick Morris or anybody. I have talked with him about education issues in general.

Q Sir, can I ask one last question about the problem -- if whether or not it's getting worse or not. You know when a student isn't in school. The schools have that kind of data. Why hasn't that percolated up to the Education Department? Why don't you know if it's a worse problem, if more kids are not in school?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, the -- I think we know it's a very serious problem. And you say, is it worse than it was last year at this time.

Q I mean just -- numbers.

             SECRETARY RILEY:  I don't know that -- Bill does any -- 
             MR. MODZELESKI:  Well, first of all, you know, truancy, 

today in 1996, is not the same as it was when Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were out of school. I think that there's a greater understanding of the negative consequences when kids are out of school. As Mr. Secretary said, there's a lot educational consequences. But we're also realizing that kids who are truant are more likely to get involved in a lot of day time burglary and robberies. And so that's why it's very important for us.

What we're concerned about is truancy. Everybody who's out of school every day is not necessarily a truant. There are excused absences. There are unexcused absences. Not every school categorizes kids who are out of school as are they truants or not truants. So, I mean, one of the problems is data collection at the local level, at the state level and what's reported. So you could get a gross number of the kids who are not in school. But getting a gross number of kids who aren't in school doesn't give you an accurate reflection of that percentage of that gross number that are actually truant or absent from school because they don't have an excuse.

Q Wait a minute. You just gave use figures -- Mr. Secretary you just cited figures about truancy.

MR. MODZELESKI: From local level, right. But I'm saying is that's not reported up to the state and then to the federal government. So, in other words, local school districts have that information.

Q The only number you get is absences, total absences, and not truant?

MR. MODZELESKI: At a national level, you could go to the National Center for Educational Statistics and get some total absences. But then, in that total absent figure is that, you know, a lot of those kids are absent with excuses. You know, there's sicknesses, illnesses and other.

So the -- unfortunately, the truancy is not in that.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 12:46 P.M. EDT