U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley doesn't mind a two-step with youngsters now and then.

Riley cut a rug Monday with a group of 15 Whittier Elementary students, past and present, who danced and sang about the school's conflict management program.Eight former sixth-grade conflict managers and school counselor Betty Kerr showcased the program to Riley after school and answered questions from pros-pects.

Riley believes the anti-violence program, in which older students help others resolve conflicts through discussion and reward good behavior with access to activities and treats, makes the grade.

"This was a very interesting experience for me," said Riley, adding he often visits the nation's schools while on the road. "I thought that was very impressive."

Riley, a former South Carolina governor, came to Salt Lake City to support Lily Eskelsen's bid for the 2nd Congressional seat held by Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah. An evening fundraiser for Eskelsen, a Granite School District teacher, was sponsored by Norma Matheson, widow of former Gov. Scott Matheson.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for these kids to show leadership among peers so they understand their responsibility to keep discipline in the school," Eskelsen said of the program at the school where her 21-year-old son attended kindergarten. The program is among Whittier's several unity-promoting measures.

"We want kids to lead the way."

Former student Derek Dunn said training to become a conflict manager, which pays 50 cents a week and includes a Whittier Wolves Conflict Manager T-shirt, helped him in the classroom and at home.

"You feel better after helping someone than if you just watch," the upcoming seventh-grader said. "I've learned to talk things out."

School safety has become a national issue following a rash of school shootings across the country and is central to President Clinton's push for education improvements, including national achievement standards and more federal spending to modernize schools and hire 100,000 teachers to reduce class size.

In the same vein, Clinton last week began promoting anti-gun policies, tough curfews and wider use of school uniforms, implemented in a handful of Salt Lake schools and being considered at Whittier. Riley says the states should view the president's platform as a suggestion.

"Education is a state responsibility," Riley said after the presentation. "I see our role in the federal government as a junior partner to states and local schools with control being strictly in their hands."