Communities respond to violence rumors

BY SUSAN KIM | COLUMBIA, Md. | May 7, 1999


COLUMBIA, Md. (May 7, 1999) -- In the wake of the Littleton school

shooting, many of the nation's young people are afraid to go to school.

School, communities, and churches are trying to respond in the midst of

bomb scares, pranks, internet threats, and rumors about 'copy-cat' crimes

and more violence.

On Thursday, Gerard Knoche's grandson brought a letter home addressed to

parents and guardians from the school superintendent in Howard County, Md.

"We are aware of rumors regarding some incident of a catastrophic nature

involving schools which is supposed to occur on May 10," it stated. "This

information was supposedly announced on a site on the internet and is

circulating nationwide."

Officials still have been unable to verify whether such a site exists, but

the worry associated with it is real. "I'm a grandfather raising a

teenager," he said. "I let him express his anxiety about this. I feel that,

most likely, it's a hoax. I tried to give him some assurance about being

safe in school."

Knoche, who is also a pastor at the New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia,

said that response will have to be community-wide before it makes a

difference. "In Howard County, children turn in violent weapons and make a

peace statute each spring," he said. "We need to have an ongoing

consciousness raising."

Local churches in Howard County also held an interfaith community meeting

in which parents and teens gathered to discuss school violence. "Right now,

many young people just want a safe place to talk," said Knoche. "Church

youth groups can provide that."

Churches need to consider themselves partners with schools, said Leslie

Stanton, community relations specialist with Anne Arundel County Schools,

an adjacent county in which students received a similar letter. "We've been

grateful to have some calls from the religious community willing to assist

the school system. That's reassuring because it's going to take the entire

community to address this time of heightened anxiety."

A new feeling of partnerships needs to develop between schools, community

organizations, and churches, he added. "Despite the fact that churches must

be kept separate from schools, what cannot be ignored is that we're all

part of the same community. For example, churches have always been good

vehicles for disseminating information and communication. They can help get

the word out about what's happening in the schools and what we're doing

about it."

Barb Ertl, a school crisis consultant based in Erie, PA, said that

Maryland's situation isn't unusual. "We're hearing that kind of stuff all

over, from small districts to large districts," she said. School counselors

and crisis consultants are urging schools to bring parents and community

members into schools to make young people feel safer.

"The reality is we live in a violent society, but given all the places we

can be harmed, statistics still show that schools are still one of the

safest places to be."

Many counselors and pastors trying to reassure students start by

acknowledging the fact that there is evil in the world. "Littleton has

proven clearly, precisely that this type of demonic eruption can happen

anywhere. Kids need to be taught and reassured of their own goodness and of

the goodness of humanity," said the Rev. Dean Thompson, pastor at the First

Presbyterian Church in Charleston, W.V.

Youth at that church held a candlelight prayer vigil the night after the

Littleton tragedy. The church is also hosting a community forum next week

with a panel including counselors, educators, school board representatives,

and teenagers. "Many of us believe that Littleton has 'upped the ante' as

far as putting these issue on the table. We have to be in very close

conversation with our young people," he said. "There can be a remarkable

chemistry between a 70-year-old and a seven-year-old."

He added that giving youth hands-on opportunities -- such as building

Habitat for Humanity homes in the U.S., or participating in relief and

development teams overseas - can be a good way to give them a new

perspective.

A wider variety of experiences for young people probably would help,

acknowledged Sarah Lerner, a high school junior in Charleston. "Those kids

in Littleton hated minorities and popular kids. Maybe if they had had the

opportunity to get involved in something else, they wouldn't have gone over

the edge."

Lerner said that she feels less safe since her school has had several bomb

threats in the aftermath of the Littleton shooing. "The school needs to

take it seriously," she said. "And people need to pay more attention to

what other people are saying."

Requiring students to meet with guidance counselors and making more student

phone hotlines available are two ways to ensure young people have outlets

for open communication. "We need to have more people to talk to, and more

places to get support," she said. "And adults need to make sure kids are

aware of those places. For example, who really knows where to get family

counseling?"

Lerner said that offering a variety of safe outlets for youth - whether

through churches, schools, community organizations, or coffee houses -

would reach greater numbers of young people. "People feel comfortable in

different places," she said. "But one thing's for sure: everybody needs to

wake up."

Posted May 7, 1999


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