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Preparation quells anxiety in schools


BALTIMORE (May 11, 1999) -- Widely publicized rumors about catastrophe

striking schools around the nation proved once and for all a hoax Monday,

but anxiety among students, parents, and school officials is likely to

linger on a national level.

Communities are working creatively together to ease these fears with

educational campaigns, church events, and youth forums. Each sector has

something different to offer, said Donna Meoli, a youth fellowship leader

from Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Howard County, Md., where school

attendance dropped as low as 60 per cent due to unfounded rumors of

impending violence.

"I teach a middle school Sunday School class, and we approached our

discussion about violence, reassurance, and feeling safe from God's end of

things. We used the 23rd Psalm as the lesson. There is something about the

words "the Lord is my shepherd" that is so comforting to young people and

adults alike."

Coupled with spiritual reassurance is increased information sharing among

parents, children, and educators. A new campaign to educate parents about

the "V-Chip," a rating system that will be built in to all televisions by

January 1, 2000, has been announced by the Center for Media Education and

the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The V-Chip enables parents to screen television content inappropriate for

children, a step welcomed by many youth leaders already advocating

non-violent television channels, toys, and video games. Churches are also

making an effort to educate parents and young people about alternative

television programming, such as the Odyssey Channel, a cable channel that

offers ministry and consumer programming spanning many denominations.

A new Kaiser Foundation survey found that six out of 10 parents say they

are concerned "a great deal" that their children are being exposed to too

much sex (66 percent) or violence (60 percent) on television. Seventy-seven

percent of parents said that if they had a V-Chip in their home they would

use it to block shows they didn't want their children to see.

But the survey also showed that only 39 percent of parents have ever seen

or heard anything explaining the V-Chip ratings system, including a need

for the new education campaign.

Many parents and educators are also learning about newly developed

emergency response guides for school districts that previously had none.

Daniel L. Casey, a school crisis traumatologist based in Minnesota, is

developing a school crisis response workbook and 2-day training symposium

for that state, but hopes it will be replicated nationwide.

"We need to address prevention, intervention, and post-reaction," he said.

"So much can be done using local resources." For example, Casey said, the

church has a particular niche in working closely with families, since a

trusting relationship may already exist between parishioners and between a

clergy and congregation.

In the midst of bomb scares, pranks, internet threats, and rumors about

'copy-cat' crimes and more violence, people should not panic but should

still try to be prepared, he said. "Hopefully church officials will seek

some emergency response training," he said. "The key is that right now, we

all need to have a structure in place."'

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) has also developed and

adopted a new School Emergency Preparedness and Response Manual, called

Pennsylvania Safer Schools, or PASS. It is being introduced to educators,

administrators, and others through a series of six seminars focusing on

emergency preparedness and crisis response. Participants address roles and

responsibilities of school officials for emergencies such as bomb threats,

intruders and hostage situations, hazardous material spills, and weather


In Montgomery County, Md., where today police officers were present at

every public school and children were not allowed to carry book bags or

back packs, the Montgomery Community Ministry plans to expand a mentoring

program for young people. In nearby Anne Arundel County, the public schools

are making a concerted effort to bring parents and other community members

into schools, said Leslie Stanton, community relations specialist. "An

increased adult presence of any kind in a variety of settings -- teachers,

parents, clergy, community leader -- is bound to be reassuring for many

young people," he said.

Meoli said that, while the focus is on high school students in the wake of

the Littleton tragedy, communities should not forget that younger children

sense the collective tension. "It was ridiculous, what we heard over the

radio, in the newspapers, all around. It's even worse for the little ones.

They don't understand what's going on. I have a third grader who was very

worried today," she said.

Casey said that communities need to move beyond trying to place blame on

parents, teachers, or young people themselves and start working together to

ensure a safer future. "You can't throw the blame in any one place, so you

may as well work to be prepared together, and ready to respond. In the

process, that brings a community closer and into more open communication

anyway," he said.

Meoli added that, in spite of the recent scares in Maryland and elsewhere,

she and most other parents and children still believe that schools are

among the safest places to be. "What are you going to do -- never go back?"

she said. "I'm glad we treated today like any other day -- because it was."

Posted May 11, 1999

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