Tuesday, May 18, 1999

A trusted ear best defense for schools?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Would I send my child off to school this morning if I lived in Port Huron, Mich.? I wonder.

        It has been a few years since I've rustled up the morning Cheerios, packed a lunch, checked homework and sent my daughter out the door. I remember her first day at school, her pigtails bouncing as she skipped up the walk, holding her teacher's hand.

        I was afraid she would miss me.

        I was afraid she wouldn't miss me.

        I was afraid she'd notice that her teacher was smarter than I.

        I was afraid some blabbermouth would blow the Santa Claus scam.

        I was afraid the masking tape I'd used to mend her hem wouldn't hold.

        But I was never afraid that someone would bring a gun to school. Or plant a bomb there.

Bombs everywhere?
        Police say four students at Holland Woods Middle School in Port Huron planned to exceed the grisly toll at Columbine High School. A bomb found near the Michigan school's campus was initially thought unrelated to the plot.

        Unrelated? So, this was part of something else? “We think so,” a school official said.

        Are there bombs everywhere? Or just bomb scares everywhere? And threats. Rumors. In a Dallas suburb, officials scrambled the schedule for the last two weeks of class after repeated bomb threats. A nail-studded pipe bomb was found at a prom Saturday in West Palm Beach, Fla.

        Closer to home, classes were canceled at Dixie Heights High School when somebody spotted a suspicious-looking book bag. Nearly half the students at Conner Junior High School stayed home amid rumors that somebody planned to blow up the school. Ditto Walnut Hills and Milford high schools.

        “It's part of the climate in this country today,” Milford's principal Jim Quatman told reporters. “There's a battle line — you have to draw that line and determine who is in charge.”

        At Madeira Junior Senior High School, a student was suspended after other students overheard him making threats and reported him to a guidance counselor.

        And that is probably the only good news buried in the spate of disasters, real and imagined. Students themselves are asking for help, talking to people they trust. It stands to reason that they will be more likely to trust, say, a gym teacher or a librarian than a police officer posted at the door to frisk them.

Flawed logic
        Doesn't it seem kind of dumb to be packing the halls with temporary social workers and armed police officers while at the same time getting rid of teachers, guidance counselors and librarians? And doesn't it make you worry that bright people who are good with children might just pick another line of work?

        The National Rifle Association's president, Charlton Heston, said the afternoon of the shootings at Columbine, “If an armed officer had been present all of this would not have happened.” As it turned out, an armed officer was on campus, but it happened anyway.

        And as it turned out, more lives probably were saved by an unarmed teacher, Dave Sanders, shot twice in the chest as he herded 200 students out of the smoke-filled cafeteria. Ignoring his own chance to escape, he continued to sound the alarm before being shot and falling into a classroom where more students were hiding.

        The kids packed his wounds with their T-shirts and tried to keep him tethered to this earth by showing him photographs of his family from his wallet.

        Would I send my kid off to school today? And tomorrow? And the day after that? Would you?

        It's a hard question these days. Of course, we don't want to give in to young terrorists. Our real hope is the good kids, the ones who are brave enough to report what they hear.

        And the teachers brave enough to be there to listen.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com