Every community's wish: How to prevent it here


April 25, 1999|By Norris West

LIKE MOST parents, I have a hard time coming to grips with the Littleton, Colo., shooting. Parents in the Denver suburb expected their children to return from school Tuesday with no greater tragedy than a bad test score or, perhaps, a failed romance.

We're used to hearing about the spouses of police officers or soldiers wondering if they will return safely. We shouldn't have to worry about children making it back all right from school, whether the campus is in a poor neighborhood or an affluent one.

School shootings in Littleton, Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky., and elsewhere the past two years have made the once far-fetched question "could it happen here" suddenly relevant in communities across the country. The incident leads us to question whether society and schools are doing everything possible to keep children safe.

Parham criticized

Ironically, Carol S. Parham, superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools, not long ago was criticized for going overboard in the name of safety.

County schools were besieged by scores of bomb scares. All were pranks, some obviously so. Often, it was students scribbling threats on bathroom walls.

Still, Dr. Parham evacuated a school whenever it was the target of one of those pranks. The evacuations and responses from county emergency crews cost more than $1 million.

Critics contended that Dr. Parham's evacuations were an overreaction, but she held firm.

Fortunately, no bombs were ever found. One girl caught making a threat was sharply punished by the juvenile justice system: She was sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service.

School officials have a difficult task in responding adequately to potential safety threats without overreacting.

`Trench Coats' in retrospect

In retrospect, it is easy to see that members of the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia" in Littleton were headed for trouble. They dressed like Old West villains, were outcasts, wore Nazi crosses, bragged about their guns in a video production and expressed hatred of minorities.

Something should have been done long ago to avert disaster, it seems, but it may be a while before we know all the facts.

As I drove my two oldest children to school Wednesday, I asked if they thought a Littleton, a Jonesboro, a West Paducah was possible at their school.

They concluded that it could happen, but that it would be useless to spend much time worrying about something that is out of their control.

Between school and extracurricular activities after classes, my children spend as much time on campus each day as a full-time worker spends on his job. I still think of their school as a very safe place. But my mind raced through some of the faces at the school; none came close to the descriptions of the Trench Coat Mafia.

`No putdowns'

Diane Finch, coordinator of guidance and counseling in Anne Arundel schools, said the system's "No Putdowns" and "Second Step" programs teach children conflict resolution and character-building skills.

The programs were developed with Loyola College after the system identified deficiencies in the way it dealt with violent behavior. The programs have components called "anger management" and "impulse control" to help children walk away from conflicts and shield themselves from hurtful remarks, Ms. Finch says.

"We need to teach students the idea that what we do has an impact on others," Ms. Finch said.

These pilot initiatives eventually will go systemwide.

It will take such preventive programs and more to stop the kind of violence that struck Littleton.

Guns remain too easy for children and others to obtain. Home life becomes a primary suspect when something like this happens. Children are learning hate from somewhere. We've endured too much hatred on the basis of race; now it seems even athleticism is a reason to hate, too.

Schools play a key role in identifying problems and changing attitudes before they mushroom out of control. But schools cannot do it alone.

Their jobs are much more difficult when they get no help or, worse, a conflicting message from home.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached at norris.west@baltsun.com.

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