Hall Monitor

A veiled bomb threat from cyberspace keeps Sherwood High's principal up at night, making sure his students and their parents don't lose sleep.

May 11, 1999|By ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS | ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS,SUN STAFF

Principal Jim Fish would rather be at home in bed sleeping the late night hours away. Instead, tonight he is patrolling the halls of his sprawling Montgomery County high school like a weary soldier. Some twisted soul in cyberspace is giving him no other choice.

The 84 doors that lead into the school he pulls and jostles to make sure they are locked; the padlocks on the 1,400-plus lockers, he tugs again to make sure they have been fastened; endless darkened hallways are broken only by the white beam of his hand-held flashlight.

His ears catch each sound and examine it. His eyes look upon objects he has seen a thousand times before and searches for a hint of something that could be different. Just about every hour on the hour, the ritual is repeated.

That twisted soul somewhere out there is threatening to blow up his Sherwood High. The very idea ticks him off. And Jim Fish is damned if he is going to let this coward, a faceless, voiceless coward hiding in some far-flung corner of cyberspace scare him.

So here he is, in the wee hours of the night rattling lockers. The slap of steel padlock striking metal locker clangs its way down the maze of empty hallways.

He's making enough racket to wake the dead. His aim is not to be quiet anyway. He wants the sleeping parents of his 1,700 students to hear that he is here, giving up a Mother's Day celebration with his family to prove his point: This school is safe and parents have no excuse not to send their children off for a full day of learning.

Fish has his work cut out for him. Parents and students have been anxious about Monday, May 10, for weeks. Across Maryland and other states, a vague Internet rumor that something violent, like a school blowing up, is to happen on May 10, and people, if they know what's good for them, should stay out of the schools.

Here at Sherwood, the past two weeks have been tense. Dozens and dozens of students and parents have said they are worried. Antsy students have been streaming in and out of the principal's office talking about what more they have read or heard passed down from another student about the happenings of May 10. Calls have flooded the switchboard as concerned parents look for solace and a reason to insist their child attend school.

Last week, nearly 400 people showed up at a school meeting to talk about the authorless threats. Two weeks ago two bomb threats were called in and Fish evacuated the school for 40 minutes. Last Sunday a police dog sniffed every corner of the building after a parent called the police because her child had heard a bomb had been planted.

"Other counties haven't had the same hype and sensationalism that we have had here," says Fish. "That's what is leading us to act differently. That's why I am here tonight."

Shift work

Tonight, Fish has assembled a rag-tag team of six to walk the halls and keep an eye out. He, his two assistant principals, his chief of security and two parents are taking shifts walking the suburban campus. Every now and again a police officer in his cruiser drives around the building.

All together the six have nearly 100 years of teaching under their belts and just about as much in parenting.

"I don't deal in fear," says Lloyd Williams, a retired D.C. city government worker who has two daughters, one a freshman and one a senior, at Sherwood High. "We can't let a few demented people with nothing else to do keep children from getting an education. It's too important."

He shines a flashlight through the dark fields behind the school and peers through a bush. He shakes his head.

The idea that someone is trying to disrupt education has struck a chord with Williams, a Harlem-born New Yorker who spent the 1960s and '70s fighting in the civil rights movement. He says he has been arrested for standing up for equality, for fighting the establishment, for working to integrate schools.

Satisfied the school premises are safe, he strolls over to the back of his station wagon and pulls out a book, "Freedom and Justice" by southern civil rights photographer Cecil Williams (no relation).

There he is, younger, slimmer and nattily dressed, trying to integrate an all-white lunch counter in South Carolina.

His finger traces the outline of the photograph. "People have to come to school, even in the worst conditions. If anyone has learned about being fearful, it's the African-Americans in this country. We overcame this."

He closes the book and looks toward the shadowed exteriors of Sherwood High. "We can overcome this stuff, too. What parents need to say to children is `I'll go to school with you. I'll take this weight. Let's walk together.' "

Williams puts the book back under a blanket and heads toward the school's front doors. He's here, he says, because he is taking some of the weight, the worry, that his two daughters may be carrying and making their trip into school an easier one.

Feeding the fear

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