Spate of shootings rousing parents to protect schools

While some say they can do little to stop a sniper, many appreciate gesture

October 11, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

With a killer on the loose, vigilant parents across Maryland are stepping into security roles - some even taking time off from work - to try to ensure children's safety at schools.

Mothers check identification and issue visitor badges. Fathers escort children from outdoor, portable classrooms into main buildings. PTA presidents usher students to and from buses and their parents' cars.

The seemingly random shootings in the Washington region - including one at a school that wounded a 13-year-old boy - have left parents feeling helpless and concerned. Volunteering for security duty is how many of them are dealing with it.

"I don't even know that this is helping," said Barbara Bromel, who was stationed at the front doors of River Hill High School in Howard County yesterday, questioning visitors.

"If somebody really wanted to force their way in, what am I going to do? But if this is what [the schools] need and what the kids need, then I'm willing to do it."

Bromel is one of more than a dozen parents who answered a call from River Hill's principal for volunteers to stand guard and keep a watchful eye out for snipers.

`Symbolic sense'

But their real function is more consolation than protection.

"The kids like to see the presence of adults around them," said Assistant Principal Donald K. White, Jr. "It's very calming ... even for high school kids."

While Bromel's freshman son actively ignored his mother, others stopped to say hello or ask why she was there.

"Even if it doesn't necessarily increase safety at the schools, it's a good idea in a symbolic sense," said Jameson Freeman, a 17-year-old senior, "especially for elementary and middle school kids."

At Northfield Elementary in Ellicott City, volunteer coordinator Michelle Mason, had her hands full. Nearly 30 parents have volunteered for gatekeeper duty, which means guarding locked doors and keeping records of all visitors.

"I was really amazed at the response," Mason said. "There was an immediate need, and so many parents came right in to help - [both] parents who stay at home and working parents."

Escorts, extra eyes

In Anne Arundel County, parent volunteers have been directing visitor traffic and escorting students to and from outside classrooms.

Parents in Baltimore and Baltimore County are keeping watch at bus stops and attending sports practices. Carroll County is relying more on police than parents, but Montgomery and Prince George's counties are taking all the help they can get.

"The active presence in the schools is good for all of us, and frankly it's good" for the parents, said Howard County school superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "They can come in and see that they're children are safe and make a contribution."

That's why Lauren Gaasch signed on. The River Hill parent worked her first two-hour shift yesterday, greeting people as they came to the high school.

"This is more for me, than for them," she said. "I just wanted to get the feel of the school and make sure the kids were happy and they felt safe."

Officials are careful to stress that the parental presence doesn't take the place of real security measures.

"We wouldn't want anybody to think they're security officers or replacing police or anything like that," O'Rourke said. "They're meant to be more in the way of an adult presence."

Some schools continue to operate on varied levels of lockdown status, with decisions about after-school activities being made on a daily basis, and police are still stationed at schools throughout the state.

No sure things

Many superintendents are also in near constant contact with their local chief of police to determine the best way to safeguard against the unseen shooter, though everyone knows there are no sure things right now.

"Having parents in the schools reminds me to be more aware of my surroundings, to be more cautious," said Tara Johnson, a 17-year-old River Hill senior. "But how far is the school actually going to go?"

Johnson wants her regular life back. This is her last year in high school, and she wants to participate in it fully, sports and after-school activities, too.

"It's really obstructing our normal way of life," she said.

Rob Foreman, another 17-year-old River Hill senior, agreed. While he appreciates the police and parental concerns, he said it might be a little bit much.

"I think the parents are more paranoid than we are," he said. "I can't see some little old mother stopping someone from coming in with a gun, but I understand why they're there."

He said he's OK with it - as long as it's not his mother.

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