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Safety Plans Didn’t Stop Ga. Attack

May 22, 1999

CONYERS, Ga. (AP) _ Jim Borland came home from a business trip last month to find his 18-year-old son, Graham, gripped by news of carnage at a high school in Littleton, Colo. ``You know, this could happen in our school system,″ the teen-ager recalls warning his dad. ``We need to take more precautions.″

Jim Borland agreed. As a school board member for Rockdale County, he was in a good position to respond. Safety measures already were in place, and administrators quickly reinforced them.

But that couldn’t stop a 15-year-old from opening fire Thursday, wounding six students and adding Heritage High School to the list of campus bloodbaths that have shocked and frustrated the nation.

The shooting in Rockdale County, a semirural setting of 68,000 mostly white, comfortable and churchgoing inhabitants, 25 miles east of Atlanta, suggests that even an elaborate safety system may not be enough.

Under measures adopted a few years ago, Rockdale schools already employed armed police during school hours, according to schools spokeswoman Susan Paul Smith. Video cameras already watched kids on school buses and in the schools. Trained dogs periodically came to sniff for drugs.

Earlier this year, when Thomas Solomon Jr., the youth now charged in the shooting, reportedly brought a gun to school, the allegations were followed up and recorded, though they could never be substantiated, authorities said.

After two teen-agers at Columbine High killed a teacher, 12 students and themselves, security measures in Rockdale, where Conyers is the county seat, were reviewed. Teachers got a list of steps to take, like keeping rooms secure in an emergency, and taking the attendance roll. Superintendent Don Peccia sent parents a letter promising investigations and a police response to any ``rumors, threats or allegations.″

``Strict disciplinary consequences will be assigned to any student and to anyone else exhibiting such behavior,″ Peccia wrote.

Children were encouraged to help.

``The kids were told, `Anything that doesn’t seem right, speak up,‴ said Mary Kommeth, an English teacher at Salem, one of three Rockdale high schools.

Graham Borland, the school board member’s son, said that one schoolmate who had often boasted about ``blowing up graduation″ was followed constantly by staff members, and never allowed to be alone.

Borland’s father, a leasing company executive, heads a committee to review safety in the school district, which serves more than 13,000 children including preschoolers. The panel includes about 35 parents, business people, members of law enforcement, and even an FBI agent.

The bloodshed at Heritage High School could have been worse.

The shooter used a rifle that was missing its stock and shot from the hip, said Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington. That may explain why the gun was aimed downward, lessening the carnage.

``We also used the word ‘blessed’ many times,″ Borland said after a school board meeting Thursday, the day of the shooting. ``I think we were very thankful to God. I think he was looking out for us.″

Among parents gathering for the meeting, which had been scheduled before the shooting took place, there was a hint of resignation.

``I don’t think that you could prevent it 100 percent,″ said Paul Lee, a Conyers father of two teen-agers. ``They have terrorists all over the world. In the Capitol, that guy broke in and killed two guards,″ he said, referring to last July’s killings in Washington. ``It could happen anywhere.″

Borland and others say they had striven until now to strike a balance between adequate security and not turning the schools into fortresses.

Now school officials are talking about mandating clear book bags, or no bookbags, a dress code, even metal detectors _ ideas that until now had been soundly rejected.

Borland’s group will be reviewing the schools’ inch-thick crisis management book. One situation the book doesn’t deal with, Borland said, is what to do when a student has a gun.

That could change too.

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