Preventing youth violence focus of forum

Community talks of ways to avoid school shootings

April 30, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Wearing a double-breasted suit and a large, white hard hat, the Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, was ready to get down to business.

Standing before a panel of Howard County school, police and family service officials last night, Turner launched into a stirring speech.

His words were aimed at the panel and an audience of concerned parents, their children and members of the Columbia community who met to discuss how to prevent an incident such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two students fatally shot 12 others and a teacher and then killed themselves.

FOR THE RECORD - Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, was incorrectly identified in a photo caption in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun. The Sun regrets the error.

"Even in Columbia, even in Howard County, even in a middle-class community like ours, we have work to do," Turner said before a crowd of about 60 people. "People think that because they've left the inner city that they aren't exposed to violence. But our exposure to violence is still there - through the Internet, video games, cartoons, even music.

"Often, these things are more violent than anything you'll ever see in the inner city," Turner said.

Many in the audience and on the panel were likely to agree with him.

Some parents said they wanted reassurance from county police and school administrators of increased security in the schools.

Since the Littleton incident, schools throughout the Baltimore-Washington area

have been troubled by bogus bomb threats that have forced evacuation of the buildings while authorities search for explosive devices.

"A year ago, we came up with a response plan with the school system for these types of situations. But no one in the world would have thought that something of this magnitude would happen," said Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay.

Livesay referred to an announcement earlier this week by President Clinton that would allow every Howard high school to employ a full-time police officer with funding from a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department. The county now has two police officers assigned to patrol the county's 10 high schools.

"But I don't want to give the wrong impression," Livesay warned. "These officers are not to function as security guards. They'll be part of the faculty at each school. You'd be surprised by the amount of students who provide these officers with information about what's going on in the schools."

Many at the meeting said violence has become too prevalent in America's schools, homes and culture.

"It's illegal to portray someone smoking or drinking on TV, but you can see people being annihilated within a 30-minute program," said Harold Williams, president of the board of directors of the county's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center. "We need to advocate anger management."

Wilde Lake High School student Stephanie Phelps said youth violence "stems back to society de-emphasizing the family itself. Family values and morals aren't taught. School doesn't instill these values in you, but they expect it of us."

Columbia resident George W. Brown, a retiree, said families "need to take back their homes and their children. I think they're negating their responsibilities.

"No child of mine would be able to have a room in my house that I couldn't enter, unless they were paying me rent," Brown said to loud applause. "I find that utterly ridiculous. Children's rights are fine, but there are limits to everything."

Clarke Gordon of Columbia, a permanent substitute teacher at Harper's Choice Middle School, suggested that school officials, police and parents "form a consortium to invade our schools and try to figure out how to stop this violence from happening again."

Estes Lockhart, director of pupil services for Howard public schools, said that each high school has counselors to help students through times of emotional turmoil and defuse potentially violent or dangerous situations on campus.

"We have plans in place so that everyone knows their roles if anything should happen," Lockhart said. "Teachers are being trained to know how to de-escalate a situation if it turns violent."

Lisa Cooper-Lucas, manager for clinical implementation for Magellan Behavioral Health, said parents and teachers should learn to listen more carefully to what children say about what's going on in their schools.

"In almost 100 percent of the cases where something violent has happened in schools, someone said what they were going to do," she said. "We need to recognize that violence is a disease and that anger is something that can be managed appropriately."

"I don't understand how those kids got their guns," said Brandon Hunt, 13, a Mayfield Woods Middle School pupil. "Today, a boy told another student that he was going to beat him up if he didn't give him a cookie. I know it sounds funny, but it was scary.

"Someone should do something because some of these kids are really psycho," Hunt said.

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