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The new law signed by Gov. Pataki toughening penalties for 14- and 15-year-old students coming to school with loaded weapons responsibly addresses a sad but growing problem in New York and across the country.

Not that many years ago, tales of students arriving at school with loaded guns were virtually unheard of.

But just in New York State from 1987 through 1996, Albany says, the number of 14- and 15-year-olds arrested for possessing dangerous weapons on school grounds rose by 40 percent. Nationally, 29 schools reported deaths in the last academic year alone.

The suitable new state penalties become effective Nov. 1. The law permits -- not requires, permits -- law-enforcement authorities to try 14- and 15-year-olds as adults and, if convicted, impose sterner penalties than in the past.

Those convicted could go to jail for up to four years -- or up to seven, if an intent to use the weapon unlawfully is proven -- instead of an 18-month maximum sentence.

Given the frightening rise in the number of youngsters coming to school with weapons and the imperative for an environment that lends itself to learning, these counter measures enacted by the State Legislature and signed into law by Pataki are more than justified. Almost by definition, 14- and 15-year-olds lack the maturity to handle such weapons responsibly.

This newest change, Pataki said, builds upon another 1995 law that mandates a one-year suspension for any student found to have brought a gun to school.

The changes won't attain their fullest potential, however, unless students clearly understand them and their serious legal ramifications. That, then, becomes the job of school administrators. They need to make sure that students know from day one what the consequences are of coming to school with a gun.

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