Shooting at school puts parents on edge

In neighboring counties, many drive pupils home

October 08, 2002|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Benny and Clalia Isaja drove 45 minutes from their Virginia home so their granddaughter, a sixth-grader at Crofton Middle School, wouldn't have to walk home yesterday afternoon.

They weren't the only ones waiting. Dozens of parents arrived well before the final bell rang at Crofton Middle, about six miles from the Bowie school where a 13-year-old boy was shot, to make sure their kids got home safely.

In the hours after a sniper's latest shooting - the first to hit a child - school officials and police scrambled to secure schools. And for parents, the simple act of dropping off a kid at school suddenly seemed fraught with danger.

"It makes me feel horrible," said Kelly Jennings, who picked up her daughter Kristina Lewis, also a sixth-grader, as a police helicopter hovered. "It makes you not even want to send your kids to school."

The scene in Crofton was repeated outside scores of schools in Prince George's County, where the shooting occurred, and neighboring counties.

Shortly after the shooting, which occurred at 8:09 a.m., schools locked their doors, drew their window blinds and posted sentries outside campuses.

Afternoon kindergarten in most counties was canceled, as were outdoor field trips, recess, lunches and gym classes. After-school activities such as chorus auditions and sporting events were postponed.

School officials in several counties said students would be kept indoors today, and police officers would be on hand at the start and end of the school day, but postponed decisions about after-school activities.

As the news spread yesterday afternoon, nervous parents flooded school office phones with calls. Some withdrew their children from school early.

Others rearranged schedules or left work to fetch their children rather than let them walk or ride bicycles home.

When seventh-grader Stefan Monell walked out of Crofton's main doors, the first face he saw was his mom's. "I wasn't letting him walk today," said Jeannette Monell, who left her job early.

All day, administrators fired off memos to schools with instructions on security measures.

At Mount Airy Middle School in Carroll County, Principal Virginia Savell brought all of her pupils inside as soon as she heard about the shooting.

Savell instructed teachers to briefly tell students what was happening - calling the shooting "an incident in Prince George's County" - and explained that everyone would be kept indoors.

Many principals kept kids in the dark until they released them from school, with a warning to be vigilant.

"I find that it's better to keep students uninformed of things they have no control over, that may affect them in a negative way," Crofton Middle Principal Richard Berzinski said.

Allen Olchowski, principal of Forest Ridge Elementary School in Howard County, agreed. "We don't want to upset the kids unnecessarily."

Child psychologists said that although school officials were right to shield students from the news, parents should listen to children's concerns and answer questions about the incident.

"They should be telling kids the truth," said Mark Weist, director of the Center for School Mental Health Assistance at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine. "These are horribly tragic events, but we don't have any information that it's going to be widespread."

Casey Conway of Lutherville had told her 7-year-old son before school that the "bad guy" responsible for the shootings had been caught. But by the time she picked him up from Lutherville Laboratory that afternoon, she said she no longer knew what to say.

"I don't know what to tell him because I don't want him to get scared so he doesn't want to go to school," Conway said.

Some pupils who'd heard the news said they were worried, but not terrified.

As he played on a swing, Douglas O'Neil, a third-grader at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Baltimore, acknowledged being "a little bit scared" by the news. But he said he didn't think he would be hurt by the sniper, "because I know my daddy and mom would come rescue me," Douglas said.

Many parents said they took comfort in the safety precautions the schools took but acknowledged that their nerves were frayed.

"This is just too close," said Patty Joslin, who was picking up her daughter at Forest Ridge. "Bowie is too close."

Bobby Marshall, who picked up his two daughters from Bowie High and nearby Kettering Middle School, said he would not let fear keep his family from their normal lives or his children from school.

"We'll just pray tonight that this is all over as soon as possible."

Sun staff writers Jonathan D. Rockoff, Lane Harvey Brown, Laura Barnhardt, Tricia Bishop, Tanika White, Liz Bowie, Athima Chansanchai, Rona Kobell and Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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