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No Easy Answers To Violent Schools

May 22, 1998

Kathy Epps worries about the students’ baggy clothes at the Lumberton, N.C., elementary school where she teaches and monitors hallway traffic _ they’re big enough to hold weapons.

In Waldoboro, Maine, a high school principal now announces fire drills in advance, so no one will worry about alarms set off for lurking snipers. For a while in Springfield, Mo., children and teachers refused to budge when school fire alarms sounded.

This is the nervous, distracting climate in America’s public schools after a string of deadly shootings beginning in October in Pearl, Miss., and culminating Thursday in Springfield, Ore. Fourteen teachers and students have died. About three-dozen have been injured. All those accused have been schoolboys and men ages 11 to 18.

Many still feel that schools are much safer than the outside world, or than driving a car or taking an airline flight. But even those kinds of comparisons are made with sadness _ schools are supposed to be havens.

``One incident is too many,″ said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association teachers union.

Epps says her anxiety level rose in March, just after four girls and a teacher were killed at a school in Jonesboro, Ark., allegedly by two boys who pulled a fire alarm and then shot at people as they streamed out.

That month, deputies came to Magnolia Elementary School where Epps works, looking for a 14-year-old boy who reportedly had threatened to kill everyone in his eighth-grade class.

The boy was found at home, dressed in camouflage, with no weapon. Still, teachers had not been told of the possible threat. ``I felt betrayed,″ said Epps, who teaches grades four through eight and had hall duty that day.

Like other teachers, Epps says children in their early teens are the most unpredictable because of their intense emotions and difficulty connecting actions and consequences, especially when they see violence on television and elsewhere.

The fad of baggy clothing, including overcoats even in hot weather, reinforces the bravado and the uncertainty in teachers’ eyes.

``The clothes are supposed to make them big and bad and bold,″ she said. But, she said, ``It’s hard to tell whether these students have things in their pockets, as baggy as their clothes are.″

Such concerns prompted teachers in Montgomery County, Md., last year to push for a classroom ban on bulky coats and book bags. The effort failed, in part because security officials said it wouldn’t work.

The March scare at Epps’ school wasn’t the only one this spring in the rural town of Lumberton. A third-grader was caught at another school smuggling in a pistol he wanted to use to scare an older pupil. The clip had been removed, but a round was in the chamber.

Overall, the level of crime victimization, including thefts, in school buildings, grounds and buses remained steady between 1989 and 1995 at less than 15 percent of students, the Education and Justice departments reported recently.

However, the percentage of youths ages 12 to 19 who reported being victims of violence on school grounds, such as a physical attack or robbery by force, weapons or threats rose from 3.4 percent to 4.2 percent, equal to about 1 million of the 24 million youth that age in public schools.

More than 6,000 students were expelled in 1996-1997 for bringing firearms to schools, but one-third of those expulsions were shortened to less than a year. Often, officials don’t know if the motive is crime or just an unofficial show-and-tell.

In South Carolina this month, for example, Lexington County authorities confiscated pistols two days in a row _ one from a 7-year-old-girl, one from a 15-year-old boy. The girl told authorities she found the 9mm in the glove compartment of her father’s truck.

Yet even as they worry about security, educators also are concerned that an atmosphere of fear and suspicion can hurt schools, too.

``We just can’t fear kids because of isolated cases like this,″ said Ramon Paz, principal of Amphitheater High School in Tucson, Ariz. ``As educators, it can’t be the thing that preoccupies you.″

Epps, the North Carolina teacher, said she relegates fear to the back of her mind.

``If I let that come always to the front of my mind, I don’t think I would be an effective teacher,″ she said.

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