School stabbing spurs no new security measures

September 29, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

Administrators at Howard High School urged teachers and students yesterday to be more cautious, but they decided against implementing any new security measures one day after a health teacher was stabbed with a kitchen knife.

"The Columbia area gives us a false sense of security, and we need to up our level of awareness," said Eugene L. Streagle Jr., principal of the Ellicott City school. "What we don't want is for this to become a fortress."

During a meeting for the entire faculty late Tuesday, it was decided that teachers who arrive before the 7:30 a.m. start of the school day should wait until someone else arrives before entering the school if they feel uncomfortable, Mr. Streagle said.

Two other significant changes were made. Teachers were encouraged to lock their classroom doors if they are alone in a section of the building, and custodians will begin locking the outside doors about an hour earlier at the end of the day.

"The main thing is for people to be aware," Mr. Streagle said.

Police reported little progress yesterday in the search for suspects in the apparent robbery. The reason, they said, is that the victim, Kathleen Johnston, 46, recalls few details of the incident except that two males assaulted her.

"We still haven't determined whether it was students or outsiders," said Howard County police spokesman Sgt. Steve Keller. "The victim hasn't told us much more. . . . We still don't have any witnesses or any hard investigative leads."

Ms. Johnston, a health and physical education teacher at the school for 21 years, was found lying semiconscious in her office by a female student about 6:45 a.m. Monday, about 15 minutes after she had arrived at school. The teacher had a stab wound in her abdomen and later told police she also had been hit twice over the head with an unidentified object.

The 8-inch-long serrated knife used in the stabbing was found on the floor next to Ms. Johnston. She told police that apparently nothing was stolen except an undetermined amount of cash.

Mr. Streagle speculated that the suspects could be former students who robbed Ms. Johnston because she used to collect the money from a soda machine in the school, a chore she gave up about two years ago. He said he is "quite confident that it is not a current student.

The only description Ms. Johnston has been able to provide is that one suspect is a black male between 18 and 20 years old, Sergeant Keller said.

Ms. Johnston, an Elkridge resident, was released from Howard County General Hospital yesterday. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

Mr. Streagle said he did not know when Ms. Johnston might return to the school but that he would give her as much time as she needs to recover.

"Whatever time she needs or whatever she needs, we'll make sure she gets it," Mr. Streagle said.

Her husband, James Johnston, the school's band director, returned to work for part of the day yesterday because he wanted to be sure that the band is prepared to play at a school football game tomorrow night, Mr. Streagle said.

Students prepared get-well banners and cards for Ms. Johnston during their lunch periods yesterday, and they said the stabbing was the main subject of discussion during the day.

"A lot of people are talking about it. Some say that students did it, but no one really knows anything," said sophomore Dominic Tourre, 15.

A guidance counselor from the school came to each of Ms. Johnston's ninth-grade health classes to answer students' questions, said freshman Jessica Menear, 14.

Mr. Streagle said he receiving only a handful of phone calls from concerned parents, but the county school system received a number of calls, said spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

"My mom doesn't want me to stay late, and the parents of a lot of my friends said the same thing," said freshman Alyson Riccardi, 14.

Most teachers said they were shocked but did not expect to XTC take significant additional precautions.

"It's a safe school, and it always has been. This is an out-of-the-ordinary situation," said science teacher Charles Staab, who has been at the school for 29 years.

Earth sciences teacher Kathy Greisman, who is in her first year at the school, expressed some concern. "I'm not going to stay as late as I did. I'll start taking a computer home to do work there," she said.

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