Sunday, June 03, 2001

Everyday


Playing hooky pales in these times are a-changin' days

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        When he was at Milford High School in the late 1960s, you could make a black-powder rifle in shop class. You'd send away for the kit, then put it together for school credit. Lots of boys did it.

        They made Bowie knives, too. And if you wanted a pistol for target practice in your back yard, you walked down to Western Auto and bought a .22-caliber. He got one when he was 17.

        He is the principal now of a local suburban high school. Which one isn't important. It's a typical high school in a typical suburb. Only the problems aren't so typical anymore.

        If you are of a certain age, you can recall what trouble was in high school. It was getting caught skipping class on the first warm day of spring. It was leaving school grounds in your car to go out to lunch. It was faking your parents' signature on an absence note. That was really bad.

        It wasn't wondering if the kid next to you was homicidal.

        Not long ago, I'd tell the Kid Down The Hall, nearly 15 now and soon a high school sophomore: “Don't think you're going to get away with much, chief. Where you're going, I've already been.”

        That was before Columbine (where 13 students were killed and dozens werer injured by two classmates in 1999) and Santee (where a high school student killed two and wounded 13 earlier this year). It was before Nathaniel Brazill, 14, shot his favorite teacher in the face, then stared blankly when he was found guilty of second-degree murder. “Not too bad” was his reaction to the verdict, which carried a minimum 25-year sentence.

        I've never been there.

        The principal believes he knows how to deal with today's problems. He thinks he has a good handle on them. But he can't relate. None of us can.

        He's a bit bewildered. Most of us are.

        “As an assistant principal, I once suspended a kid 10 days. The kid said to me, "I'm going to go home, get my knife, come back and stab you.' I said, "Fine, I leave here at 3:30. Make sure you're here before then.' He came back after his 10 days suspension and was never a problem,” the principal says.

        If the kid had done that now, he'd be expelled at least. Maybe he'd be in jail.

        What do we do?

        An elementary school child comes to class with a squirt gun and is taken away in handcuffs. A school in New Jersey last fall suspended a 9-year-old for threatening to launch a paper wad from a rubber band. Yes, our schools must be protected from hardened 9-year-olds wielding rubber bands.

        But what if a kid makes a threat, it's shrugged off and he shows up with an arsenal in his locker?

        What do you tell your kids now, when they leave the house each morning? Have a good day. Watch your back.

        “Columbine was the first time I was truly worried about a school shooting,” the principal says. “Columbine is very similar to this school: Suburban, changing community, becoming more affluent, new building. We could have some kids who, after seeing that, could pick up on it.”

        The principal insists his staff get to know as many students as possible. “I try to run this place with a lot of hands-on and common sense. Be visible, listen, don't stay in your office all day.”

        It used to be, teachers were not asked to be counselors, therapists and surrogate parents. They were asked to teach. What a quaint concept.

        Last week, a student brought a knife to school.

        “What are you going to do with that?” the principal asked.

        “I don't know. It was in my jacket pocket. I just decided to bring it.”

        The principal called the parents. They apologized and took their son home. No suspension. “He's a good kid,” the principal says. “We scared the heck out of him. He won't be bringing the knife back in.”

        Maybe he won't. But what about the next kid?
        Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; fax: 768-8330; e-mail: pdaugherty@enquirer.com.

       



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