Empty seats, but no violence

Absentee rate hits 30% in Md. schools on `day of doom'

May 11, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Rumored school violence never materialized yesterday, but an estimated 250,000 Maryland students -- either fearful of the threats or enjoying a warm spring day -- abandoned their desks in what state officials called "unprecedented" absenteeism.

About 30 percent of the state's students missed school, said officials, who were still tallying attendance figures. In some schools -- such as Glen Burnie High in Anne Arundel County -- more than half the students did not show up for class.

"We have families that are distraught -- my phone has been ringing all morning," said Cyndy Little, director of pupil services in Carroll County. "I've had 35 calls from parents who are upset -- I have been telling parents that I've got a seventh-grader and my kid is in school today."

"This is totally unprecedented," Ronald A. Peiffer, spokesman for the State Department of Education, said."Other than bad weather, I can't recall anything like this."

Statewide, the average absentee rate is about 8 percent in high schools, and 4 percent for middle and elementary schools.

The mass absences -- triggered by rumors of violence on May 10 -- were the latest disruption to afflict Maryland schools since the killings in Littleton, Colo. Officials ordered a one-day postponement of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program achievement tests, scheduled to begin yesterday for third- and eighth-graders. Though the number of threats seems to have eased recently, more were reported yesterday.

In Howard County, a 17-year-old junior at Centennial Lane High School was charged with willful disturbance of school activities after police said he told a student that he was late to class because he had placed a bomb in a trash can. In Baltimore, where nine bomb threats were reported, a 10-year-old pupil at Govans Elementary School was arrested.

With tensions high, school life was altered and educators faced some unusual questions.

As fifth-grader Tommy McChesney, 11, headed into Columbia's Running Brook Elementary School, he asked one of his teachers: "Are we going to die?" The answer was a quick and emphatic "No."

At Severna Park High School, where more than 300 students were absent, parent volunteers were stationed in the halls, police were positioned outside main entrances and bomb squad dogs patrolled the school. Students said a priest, pastor and rabbi were on hand to talk to worried students.

"All the doors to the outside were locked," said freshman Michelle Swartz, 15. "We couldn't even walk through the courtyard in between classes."

School officials said many students who skipped school yesterday feared that rumors of shootings and bombings would come true. But some may have used the threats as an excuse for the traditional "senior skip day," the first school day after a weekend prom.

"It's probably a combination of both," said David Hill, principal of Glen Burnie High School, where 1,183 of 1,999 students stayed home. "We have virtually no seniors here."

In Baltimore, Southwestern High School had one of the highest absentee rates -- 62 percent of its students missed school. Across town at Patterson High School, English teacher Greg Ekey said he had taught only 17 ninth-graders in three periods -- a situation that was frustrating but allowed some students to get extra attention.

Some educators were disappointed by the results of a weeklong campaign to assure parents that their children were safe in school. Still, they were relieved that there were no surprises during the school day.

"This confirms that it was all unsubstantiated rumors," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state schools superintendent. "And I am very excited that many parents and students stood up to all of this and did not allow themselves to become victims of irresponsible behavior."

Confronting the threats wasn't easy.

A group of friends talking outside Severna Park High offered a range of emotions about attending school on the rumored "day of doom."

"I was scared," said sophomore Melissa Beall, 15. "But my mom made me come. She said that it was just a prank and we shouldn't give in to it."

"Well, I never thought anything would happen," said sophomore Jackie Kammerer, 15.

Students at Anne Arundel's Old Mill High School, where 44 percent of the students were absent, described the hallways and classrooms as "deserted."

Said Lisa Paska, 15: "We had classes with 10 kids in them when there was normally 30. Our teacher said she would just have to give the notes over again tomorrow when the rest of the class is here."

"There were five police cars here when we drove up this morning," said ninth-grader Stephanie Laning. "And it kind of took our breath away when [the principal] announced during lunch that they were going to search the cafeteria."

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