Concerns aside, parents want kids in school

Families take precautions as pupils return to classes with officials' assurances

October 24, 2002|By Sandy Alexander, Stephen Kiehl and Laura Loh | Sandy Alexander, Stephen Kiehl and Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

At Strathmore Elementary School, close to the Aspen Hill neighborhood where the serial sniper claimed his 10th victim Tuesday morning, the Montgomery County Fire Department tried yesterday afternoon to reach out to threatened children.

Firefighters drove a fire engine to the front door shortly before school let out for the day, "to give them a little confidence, lend them a little support," said Dick Mullens, a district chief with the county Fire Department.

The engine was removed about 10 minutes later, before the children were sent home for the day. Mullens said parents feared that the sight of the emergency vehicle might panic the children.

For parents and firefighters, it was hard, in the heart of the sniper's killing zone, to find the right thing to do a day after hearing the grim warning: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Adults and children were nervous, but they also appeared determined to move on. They were comforted by the visible presence of police, parents and school staff members as children arrived at and left schools.

Montgomery school attendance went back up to 88 percent yesterday after plunging Tuesday. Some schools reported as few as 10 percent of their pupils present the day of the shooting.

Still, parents tried to avoid letting their children be exposed unnecessarily.

Ken Jenkins said his 8-year-old daughter, Nicole, won't ride the bus until the sniper is caught.

"There are certain things you have some control over," Jenkins said. "The most I can do as a parent is to walk her to the front door of the school."

Laurin Morrison's children, Ellen, 10, and William, 11, usually walk home from Strathmore, but she is driving them now.

Ellen had been a safety patrol officer helping children outside the school, but, Morrison said, "We're not about to let her stand outside anymore."

She said, "When you're dealing with someone else's life, not your own, you take extra care."

But parents said they were certain their children belong in class.

"We're all nervous, we're all uncomfortable," said Joyce Fekkak, whose daughter is in the fifth grade at nearby Flower Valley Elementary School.

"You would like to keep your kids locked in the house until this is all over, but you can't do that," she said.

"Kids belong in school," said Dawna, a mother of two boys who preferred to give only her first name.

She doesn't usually pick up her older son, a kindergartner at Flower Valley, and she said she was not frightened for his safety. But yesterday she wanted to take him home in the early afternoon so that he could play outside before dark.

Many parents were saddened by reports that the sniper left a letter specifically threatening children. But most felt that message was clear after a 13-year-old was shot at a Prince George's County middle school two weeks ago.

During a news conference yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said, "The language ... confirms the threat we all know we've been under for some time. What more did anyone need to know after seeing [that] this person shot a child at school?"

Trusting police, schools

The consensus yesterday among parents waiting outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School, where the youth was critically wounded, seemed to be that schools and police are doing all they can to protect students.

"I don't know what else they could really do," said Janet Fowler, whose daughter is in the seventh grade. "You can't keep them out of school forever."

The parents of the Tasker victim released a statement yesterday that said the youngster remains in serious condition, and "recovery at any level appears to be months away."

But, the family wrote, "With God's help, our son is fighting back. ... We are grateful for all that was and continues to be done for him."

As the effort to protect schools and children extends from days into weeks, parents and educators are showing the strain.

"The teachers are tired, the kids are stressed out," Dawna said. "The children need to run around."

Montgomery County schools have been operating under various levels of lockdown since the first shootings Oct. 2. They were in "code blue" mode early this week, with children not allowed outside, among other measures. That level of security will continue today.

On the periphery

Even school districts on the periphery have been on edge.

When a United Parcel Service driver reported seeing a white van parked near a wooded area just down the hill from the Carroll County Career and Technology Center in Westminster yesterday afternoon, Principal Catherine Engel locked down the school and police were called. The van turned out to be abandoned, and the lockdown - prohibiting anyone from entering or leaving the school, and staff members and students from moving among classrooms - was lifted after a half-hour.

Schools in Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland received financial aid yesterday: $600,000 in federal grants to help them through the crisis.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said Maryland's $250,000 share from the School Emergency Response to Violence Program will go to Montgomery County schools to pay for communication and security devices on school buses.

Many parents were determined to send their children to school, and the children mostly seemed to want to be there.

Phillip Ponta, an eighth-grader at Benjamin Tasker Middle School, was worried about the sniper's apparent focus on children. But he said he wanted his school to remain open.

"I'd rather be in school, because I doubt he would come inside and shoot everyone," he said.

Eighth-grader Immanuel Bibbins said he wasn't letting the threat get to him.

"I'm all cool with it," he said, as his mother honked from her minivan to get his attention. "I'm just going to pray more and hope he's not going to come back to my school."

Sun staff writer Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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