Despite fears spawned by a series of high-profile school shootings, violent juvenile crime rates dropped last year, continuing a four-year trend, according to a Justice Department study released yesterday.

The study suggests that juvenile crime is returning to the relatively stable rates typical in the decades prior to the crack epidemic of the late 1980s.

The Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that the 1998 violent juvenile crime level was the lowest since 1987, and was down 30 percent from its 1994 peak. The study also found significant decreases in all violent juvenile crimes, including a nearly 50 percent drop in the juvenile murder arrest rate from 1993 to 1998. Juvenile arrests for weapons violations dropped by a third between 1993 and 1998.

"Through comprehensive and coordinated efforts at the federal, state and local level, we are reducing youth violence," said Attorney General Janet Reno. "But we must continue to strengthen our nation's juvenile justice systems and support prevention and early prevention programs that are making a difference for our young people and their communities."

The study was prepared by Howard N. Snyder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, based on data reported to the FBI. Snyder analyzed the estimated 2.6 million arrests in 1998 of individuals under 18, comparing them with previous years' arrest rates.

The 1998 juvenile rape arrest rate was down 25 percent from its 1991 peak. Aggravated assault was down 20 percent from the 1994 level. Robbery was down 45 percent from the 1995 level, and was at its lowest since 1980.

Juvenile property crime rates also declined. Compared with 1989 levels, burglary was down 22 percent, theft dropped 19 percent and motor vehicle theft fell 39 percent.

"Along with these lower rates, we are seeing substantial reductions in the actual number of juvenile arrests for every violent and property crime even when the total number of juveniles in the nation is increasing," said Shay Bilchik, administrator of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The study also found that fewer juveniles were victims of murder. In 1998, about 1,960 murder victims were under the age of 18, substantially fewer than in the peak year of 1993, when 2,880 juveniles were murdered. However, the decline only returned the murder victim level to that of 1988.

The study's findings about firearms demonstrated the continuing prominence of guns in teenage violence. While 68 percent of adult murder victims were killed with a firearm, 77 percent of murder victims 13 to 18 in age were. However, of murdered children under age 13, 16 percent were killed with a firearm.

CAPTION: Attorney General Janet Reno reports that "we are reducing youth violence."