A White House conference on school violence was opening Thursday with a report suggesting the problem may be smaller than an outbreak of schoolyard shootings last year led people to believe.
The conference is hosted by President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. It will feature representatives from school-related organizations across the country.
Although 16 people died and dozens were wounded in the last school year in attacks on youngsters and teachers by youngsters, the rate of school crime was down, the White House said. The study was the first of what the White House said will be yearly reports on school violence.
Four were killed in two such incidents in 1992-1993, the report said.
Although the administration must show it is responding to the violence, it also is being careful not to rattle confidence in public schools. The administration is championing public schools and its strong political allies, teachers, against Republican efforts to make it easier for parents to send children to private and parochial schools.
Education Secretary Richard Riley and Ray Fisher, the associate attorney general, said the report and conference are still needed.
"Schools are safer in a slight percentage in terms of overall criminal acts," Riley said, "but any criminal act, any act of violence makes it worthy to improve. It still is a major concern of ours.
"It's gotten somewhat better, but it is important now to pay more attention than ever. And, of course, these four or five terrible multiple homicides last year really caught our attention as to the important need for emphasizing this issue."
Both said the report also gives information on groups, programs and strategies for preventing violence.
"We're trying to provide the tools and the resources so that we can dispel the myths," Fisher said.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the report and conference as election-season politics.
"One more report on school violence and one more conference on school safety won't make a single American school safer," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. He criticized Democrats for blocking legislation that would require harsher penalties for juveniles who commit violent crimes.
The administration says the GOP's juvenile justice bills put too little emphasis on prevention.