Despite a handful of high-profile shootings at American schools in recent years, there has actually been a dramatic decline in the number of students expelled from school for carrying firearms, according to an Education Department report released yesterday.

The department said that during the 1997-98 academic year, 3,930 students were expelled for carrying a firearm in school, a 31 percent drop from the 5,724 who were expelled for that reason the previous school year.

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and law enforcement officials hailed the findings and said they showed that schools are becoming safer despite such incidents as the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last April.

"The sharp decline in the number of students bringing guns to schools tells us that we are starting to move in the right direction," Riley said at a news conference yesterday.

"The Columbine issue, we truly understand, is an aberration," added Wesley Mitchell, police chief for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Things are not getting worse. They are getting better."

The school expulsion figures from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories were contained in an Education Department report on implementation of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act. The measure required states that receive federal education aid to enact laws requiring a minimum one-year expulsion of students who take firearms to school. (The length of the expulsion can be shortened at the discretion of local school officials.)

Bill Modzeleski, director of the Education Department's Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, noted that the figures should be treated with some caution because of changes in reporting methods by some states during the two school years that were compared.

But Modzeleski and Riley also noted that the trend toward fewer firearms-related school expulsions was consistent with a report issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed a significant decline in the amount of violence by teenagers both in and out of school since the early 1990s.

According to yesterday's figures, four District students were expelled from school for gun violations during the 1997-98 school year; there had been no such expulsions in 1996-97. In Maryland, the number of such expulsions--from 73 to 64--declined by 12 percent and in Virginia they increased by 8 percent, from 92 to 99 expulsions.

Overall, only 13 states and the District reported an increase in gun-related school expulsions. California and Texas were the only states with more than 300 expulsions, while South Dakota, Delaware and Oregon reported the highest rates of expulsions per 1,000 students.

Handguns accounted for 62 percent of the expulsions and rifles 7 percent. The remainder involved such firearms as bombs, grenades and starter pistols, the report said. A majority of the expelled students, 57 percent, were in senior high schools, 33 percent were in junior high schools and 10 percent were in elementary schools, according to the report.

Modzeleski said part of the decline was due to the impact on local communities of the Columbine massacre and similar school shooting rampages in Conyers, Ga., Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore.

Those incidents, he said, "emphasized the need for strong policies" against firearms at schools. "There is a heightened awareness of the need for enforcement. Collectively, the community--because this is not just a school issue--has been much more aware of the need to lock up weapons and keep guns away from kids. Students themselves have been made aware of the fact that if they are caught with a gun at school, the school will take immediate action, not only to expel them but to report them to the criminal justice system."

Guns in School

Number of students expelled for carrying weapons to school in the 1997-98 school year.

State Expelled School-age population

District 4 73,972

Maryland 64 921,604

Virginia 99 1,191,736

U.S. total 3,930 51,310,092