Twenty pre-kindergarten students arrived at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in West Baltimore yesterday for their fourth day of school, expecting a fourth day of watercolors, stories and play time.
But instead of being greeted by their teacher, Katherine Dwyer, they were met by two crisis intervention counselors who explained why their teacher wasn't there.
"When is she coming back?" one 4-year-old boy asked. "Is she going to be fine?"
Crisis intervention teams in the last week have visited both Jefferson Elementary and Kenwood High School in Essex to help students cope with the violence that has touched their schools and the shock, intense anger, sadness and anxiety that they may be feeling.
At Kenwood High, students mourned the shooting deaths of two classmates during a convenience store robbery on Labor Day. Meanwhile, the Jefferson teacher lay in a hospital bed yesterday, recovering from a bullet wound suffered during a robbery attempt Sunday as she was walking to her car at the Westview Mall.
"The mood is calm today," said Jefferson school principal Elaine Davis. "We think we did the best thing we could have done, which was to explain to them that she's in a place where she's going to get better. ... These children are very young and now they're going about the business of looking at colors and listening to stories."
However, across town at Kenwood High School in Baltimore County, the students are older and more aware of the random violence that touched their school and led to what counselors call "deaths in the family."
Students Melody Pistorio, 14, and Billy Winebrenner, 16, were both shot during a robbery at the Middle River gas station where he worked. Melody died immediately. Billy died Sunday at Maryland's Shock Trauma Center.
In this school of 1,100 students and faculty, classes began last week not with the optimism of a new academic year, but with a somber note as homeroom teacher told students of the tragedy.
"Students don't know how to deal with murder, with senseless violence," said school principal Harold Hatton. "And neither do adults."
To help with that process, the Baltimore County Schools Crisis Intervention Program sent in a team of specialists. Eight teams of five professionals -- counselors, psychologists, school nurses -- have been trained to help students and faculty cope with crisis situations.
In each of the four years since the intervention center was formed, there have been 12 to 16 emergency situations. A crisis team was in place at Kenwood when students were told about the shootings.
"The deaths have triggered a pattern of shock, intense anger, sadness and anxiety," said Rowland Savage, supervisor of guidance services for Baltimore County schools. "The anxiety comes when students realize this is something that could
happen to them. This puts a shock on their idea of vulnerability."
Parents in both schools talked yesterday about the vulnerability that children feel when confronted with such violence in society. Linda Sepe talked to her 7-year-old son Daniel about what happened to Mrs. Dwyer before he went to Thomas Jefferson Elementary school yesterday.
"He was very frightened and concerned about her and her family," she observed. "The frightening thing for kids is the incredible unpredictable nature of this. It could happen any time to anyone they love, any caregiver, whether it's a parent, relative or a teacher."
She offered praise for the city's Crisis Support Team -- a group of 48 counselors who have received special training to work in intervention. Last year, several crisis counselors visited her son's classroom after
another student died in a house fire.
One of the problems young children often have in confronting tragedy is a lack of comprehension, said Sara Gray, coordinator of guidance services for Baltimore City schools. "We tell them that none of us understands," she said.
Joe Baxter, president of Kenwood High School's Parent Teacher Student Association, said that parents shared in their children's reaction to the deaths of the two students.
"I think most of the students feel sorry that it occurred," he said, "but they've grown up in our society knowing that it's going to occur to somebody. They've taken steps at the school for kids who need to talk to somebody -- and some kids do."
At Kenwood High, where students have been encouraged to express their sadness, to support one another and to contact the families and share their condolences, these murders have also triggered other unexpected emotions in students.
Students have come into the counselor's office to talk. One student talked about the death of her grandmother this past summer, another about the death of her father when she was younger.
"Adults are uncomfortable with mourning," said Mr. Savage, "and sometimes they don't let children express their feelings. They must be allowed to express how they feel."