Pupils take action against violence

Calif. shootings spur pupil-led forum in Harper's Choice

April 27, 2001|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The latest explosion of high school violence occurred in California thousands of miles away, but last month's shootings at a school near San Diego brought fear to students in Howard County, just the same.

Harper's Choice Middle School pupils talked last night about the violence and their fears that it could happen here in an extraordinary dialogue with adults, including educators, politicians, parents and other members of the community.

"We hope to try to avoid violence in Howard County schools and come up with programs to help schools discuss school violence," seventh-grader Kamille Guinn, one of the forum's student organizers, said this week.

Pupils shaped specific questions about the problem of violence for their guests and suggested solutions of their own. In planning sessions, several students proposed anonymous hot lines to help kids contemplating violence or to provide a safe forum to report potential threats.

Bullying, mental illness and problems at home can all lead to acts of violence, said pupil Christina Wofford, who was asked to summarize the pupils' views.

"Violence is rarely discussed before it occurs," Christina noted.

Discussing their fears and devising prevention measures can make the pupils feel safer at school, a number of the students said before last night's forum.

Some of the students said this week that they felt that increased parental involvement is important in preventing violence.

"It might be a good thing to be in your child's life," 13-year-old Nirmala Swayambunathan said in an interview Tuesday. She said parents should be more involved with children and take seriously evidence that might indicate potential violence.

"I'm so happy kids have taken it up as an issue," said Alice Haskins, director of Howard County middle schools and a panelist.

Kids need a greater awareness that what they say in passing or as a joke can be taken very seriously, she said.

Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon echoed Haskins' sentiments about the student-initiated meeting.

"The fact that the student population wants to look more critically at this issue is very positive," she said, adding pupils "show awareness and willingness to deal with issues head-on, which is the only way we're going to make some substantive changes."

Steve Drummond, security coordinator for the school system, reassured audience members by telling them that detailed plans are in place for dealing with violent attacks and natural disasters.

"Kids are safer in school than any place in the community," he said.

An overriding theme in answers from adults last night was that young people need to speak to an adult if they fear violence, and to discourage bullying in any form. Pupils were encouraged to work with friends to try to stop bullying.

Last night's forum grew out of a discussion among Harper's Choice pupils after the shooting at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., in which a 15-year-old youth armed with a .22-caliber revolver opened fire, killing two classmates and injuring 13 people.

One student who witnessed the shooting said the teen-ager was smiling as he pulled the trigger. A friend said the suspect talked about planning the shooting, but the friend didn't alert authorities because he thought the boy was joking.

The Harper's Choice youths were participating in an after-school program called SuperNova, which selects and nurtures pupils for inclusion in gifted and talented classes.

Each time a violent incident is publicized, the kids feel afraid, Edna Turner, a teacher who runs the program, said. Turner helped to coordinate last night's forum.

The shootings are happening in suburban communities - places like Columbia, Turner added.

The group of about 30 SuperNova students wanted to tackle the issue head-on and decided to take it to the community. They joined with the Harper's Choice student council to organize last night's forum.

"Why are we here? It is mainly [because of] the young people sitting in front of us," Harper's Choice Principal Anthony Harold said, referring to the pupils who organized the event.

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