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On the first day of school, Lackawanna High School students were assembled and told about a series of tough new rules designed to crack down on profanity, tardiness and disrespectful behavior.

During the presentation, a student became disruptive and cursed at teachers who tried to settle him down.

When the troublemaker was removed from school and suspended for five days, his classmates knew that school administrators meant business.

"You have no chance to be messing around here," Derrick Dilbert, a senior who competes on the football, basketball and track teams, said last week. "As soon as you get in the hallway, you've got four or five people saying: 'Let me see your pass. Let me see your pass.' "

Dilbert and three classmates acknowledged that the new rules have been effective but said that they go too far and place unnecessary restrictions on the vast majority of students, who, they said, behave and can be trusted.

But advocates of the new rules said the 640-student high school was sliding out of control.

"I would have bet anyone $100 last year that you couldn't walk from one end of the building to the other without hearing 'f' this or 'f' that, or seeing someone get pushed into a locker," said Jim Tatko, chairman of the English department and a teacher for 34 years. "It was a constant."

That is no longer the case. Hallways last week were quiet and orderly, tardiness is way down, and the new rules are being vigorously enforced, school officials said.

Off-duty police officers patrol the school unarmed as "watch persons"; lavatories are locked during much of the day except for emergencies; the lunch period has been shortened; and seniors no longer are allowed to leave school early if they are finished with classes.

Also, students go to their lockers before classes begin but cannot return to them until after lunch. A senior lounge was closed, students who arrive at school early must report to the auditorium or cafeteria, and parents are called to school after a student is tardy three times.

While some other local schools employ security officers and lock some lavatories, the series of changes at Lackawanna is considered sweeping.

"It's like going from darkness into the daylight," said Thomas S. Zajac, president of the Lackawanna Teachers Association and interim assistant principal. "I've heard nothing but good things from the teachers. It's working. It's a happier atmosphere for everyone."

Principal William J. Bilowus said the improvements are because of the School Board's insistence on discipline and clearer lines of authority.

"They gave me the autonomy to run the building the way I see fit," he said. "Sometimes, to get something done, you have to go from one extreme to another."

But Dilbert and three classmates said the rules go too far.

Amanda Brill, a senior with a 99 average, said students are being treated like children when they should be gaining the confidence and independence they will need to be successful at college or in a job.

Maleka Nashir, a senior and a member of the Student Council, said it is demeaning to be escorted to and from a lavatory.

"I feel like a prisoner escorted by a guard," she said. "It's very embarrassing."

"I think, for some students, they took one step forward and two steps back," said sophomore David Szentesy. "It makes things a little too tight."

School Board member E. Elaine Mandy agreed, saying the high school's disciplinary problems are being overstated.

"We don't need police officers," she said. "It creates a very bad image. Parents want them out. Taxpayers want them out."

Advocates of the new policy said improved discipline and order are necessary to improve the school's academic performance.

Just 21 percent of Lackawanna's seniors received Regents diplomas in 1996, compared with 31 percent in comparable small-city school districts throughout the state. The state average for all schools was 40 percent.

Staff morale improved greatly when teachers approved a contract last summer after 2 1/2 years of bargaining, Zajac said.

There also is widespread agreement that the school atmosphere improved this year when middle school students -- who previously mixed with high school students -- were placed in a separate wing.

But the key to improvement, Tatko said, are the new rules.

"We have our discipline; we have our academics," he said. "We have our school back."

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