Friday, May 21, 1999

Parents even more anxious after Conyers shooting

Copycats, lack of policy cited

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Parents' anxieties about school safety — already intense after last month's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. — escalated Thursday when a student shot six classmates at his Conyers, Ga., high school.

        Some fear schools aren't doing enough to protect their children. Others complain that administrators, in an effort to ward off bad press and parental panic, keep violent incidents and safety breaches a secret.

        But experts and local educators stress that schools cannot become armed camps. Communication, they say, is the best weapon against school violence.

        “Everybody involved needs to be talking,” said Pat Steele, a coordinator at the National Resource Center for Safe Schools in Portland, Ore. “Parents need to talk to their kids, schools need to talk to parents, law enforcement needs to talk to schools, and students need to talk to their teachers.”

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        Many districts, particularly those in the suburbs, find themselves in unfamiliar territory. That uncertainty fuels parental anxiety, experts say.

        At Fairfield West Elementary School, a second-grader was expelled Tuesday for the remainder of the school year for bringing a toy cap gun on the school bus last week.

        Her mother says the school district's zero-tolerance policy needs to be more flexible to address situations on a case-by-case basis.

        At the Fairfield Board of Education meeting Thursday night, 10 speakers gave their opinion about the school's zero-tolerance policy, with the comments divided evenly between those who supported the schools and those who thought the policy was too stringent.

        “I do not believe in zero tolerance for second-graders,” said Danny Danford of Lake Michigan Drive. "I don't think you've taught her a thing. This is a child you're dealing with.”

        Those who offered support for the district's action said children — and their parents — must be responsible for their actions.

        “I agree with the school's action,” said parent Pete Lagemann, who has a child at West Elementary and serves as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer for the schools.

        Board members did not offer any comments or take any action.

        “Right now, we're in a mode of putting out fires,” said June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “We don't have the procedures and policies in place — what do you do when something happens, how much do you tell parents and the press about it, how do you stop something from happening again?”

        David Epplenhill hopes Cincinnati Public Schools will start answering those questions soon.

        The Clifton Heights resident kept his daughter home from school May 13 after rumors circulated that a bomb would blow up Walnut Hills High School that day. More than 800 students were absent.

        Police officers and school investigators found nothing to substantiate the rumors, and Principal Marvin Koenig urged parents to get the facts before they react. But Mr. Epplenhill said such efforts aren't enough.

        “If someone says they're going to bomb the lunchroom, they clear the school before they check the lunchroom. Why do they do that? For the same reason I kept my daughter home — because you can't be assured that this is an idle threat,” he said.

        Larry and Brenda Masur of Price Hill have pondered similar questions since a surly classmate pulled a knife on their 11-year-old son at Roberts Paideia Academy several weeks ago.

        Their son's offender was kicked out of school for two weeks, but he's back.

        “Kids are going to fight, but this kid brought a knife to school — and then came back to school after only two weeks,” Mrs. Masur said.

        Bob Morgan, the district's security chief, said CPS has adopted several preventive measures, including locked doors, security cameras and daily random searches of lockers and bookbags. Eight Cincinnati police officers and 108 guards patrol city schools, he added.

        How much information officials release about an incident varies from school to school.

        In Butler County's New Miami Schools, Superintendent Gene Troy said school officials don't plan to discuss Thursday's shooting at Heritage High School.

        “We don't want to bring attention to it,” Mr. Troy said.

        In the Middletown/Monroe Schools, all principals were called Thursday morning and told about the Georgia shooting, said Norris Brown, director of pupil personnel.

        Peggy Barns, principal of Summit Elementary School in Anderson Township, planned to meet with teachers after school Thursday to discuss ways to talk to students about violence, just as she did after the Littleton shooting spree.

        “It's an opportunity to stress if you have knowledge someone plans to hurt another person, you need to report it,” Ms. Barns said.

        Bernie Mixon, Cindy Kranz and Sue Kiesewetter contributed to this report.

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