Fear grows in DC area

BY SUSAN KIM | BOWIE, MD | October 7, 2002

"In this case it's on the shoulders of the local congregation to take the initiative and do something."

—Gil Furst, Lutheran Disaster Response

The shooting of a 13-year-old boy on his way into school Monday morning added to the crescendo of fear and grief that has struck the Washington, DC area since a sniper began shooting random victims across the region last week.

Ballistic evidence showed Monday afternoon that the school shooting was linked to the sniper attacks.

School officials in two major suburban counties preventively 'locked down' school buildings and cancelled outside activities.

The boy was shot near the Benjamin Tasker Middle School as he and his aunt walked toward the school. After being flown to a trauma hospital, he was reported to be in serious but stable condition Monday afternoon.

Recent DC area sniper shootings that have killed six people and injured two, including the 13-year-old boy.

Initially in lockdown with all students inside the school, the school was then roped off as a crime scene and parents were requested to come pick up their children. The rest of the schools in Prince George's County remained in session, though recess and other outdoor activities were canceled.

Schools in Montgomery County -- where the majority of the sniper killings have taken place -- were put back under lockdown Monday.

Public schools weren't the only programs for children that have been impacted.

At St. Matthew's United Methodist Church -- a half mile from Benjamin Tasker Middle School -- parents were calling to see if the church-operated preschool would be locked down, according to the Rev. Dick Stetler.

"Our response is that we're doing business as usual while being cautious," he said.

Montgomery County police had stepped up patrols Monday as people returned to school and work.

"Clearly, we are at a level of anxiety," said Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose. "The rush hour, the number of people who come out on a Monday morning certainly tells us it's an enhanced target-rich environment."

Even incidents that once caused perhaps mild concern are now causing far greater worry, observed Stetler. "Right in front of the church, a man in a pickup truck was pulled over by police and asked to put his hands on the hood," he said. "Our teachers were looking out the window with great concern."

Parents concerned about their children's safety should try to remember that, if they are secured inside a building, they are likely safe from the sniper, he said. "The sniper's profile doesn't fit that he comes into buildings and shoots," said Stetler.

Area churches held prayer vigils over the weekend as local clergy urged their congregants to try to be courageous and go about their normal lives.

"That is all we can do," said Stetler. "That's what I preach, that's what I teach."

Last week, five people were shot to death in a 16-hour span in Montgomery County, Md., then a sixth victim was shot Thursday in Washington, DC. A seventh person was shot and injured in Fredericksburg, Va. Friday. Then the youth was shot Monday morning.

Police believe the same sniper using the same weapon shot all eight people. All the shootings occurred in daylight in public places -- gas stations, a grocery store, a bench outside a post office, the lawn outside an auto dealership, a street corner, the parking lot of a mall, and the front of a school building.

"It's the randomness that makes everybody vulnerable," said Gil Furst of Lutheran Disaster Response.

Local churches that provided a place for people who pray and be together are serving their community well, said Furst. "In this case it's on the shoulders of the local congregation to take the initiative and do something. It provides a safe haven type of atmosphere, and provides strength for people in the context of their faith."

The Rev. Jeff Jones, pastor of Ashton United Methodist Church in suburban Maryland, said he hoped response to the senseless violence would draw the community together. One of his parishioners was among those killed.

"My hope is that our response to this violence will be that instead of destroying community, we can have a renewal of feeling the pain of others," said Jones. "We need to help each other out, to move to being more engaged in our communities from being less engaged. Crisis and danger can happen to anybody at any time. All life is precious."

United Methodist Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington conference expressed his sympathies for all those affected by the recent shootings. "They heighten our awareness and rub our sensitivities raw to the harsh reality of attacks and murders -- both indiscriminate and intentional -- that occur daily in communities throughout our region, our nation and our world.

"The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' rings loud and clear as a call from God for us to refrain from and oppose violence - even the threat of preemptive violence - against human beings anywhere in the world. It simply cannot and should not be tolerated by people of God. What we should all feel on this somber occasion is holy grief; that is, not merely sorrow but also the expression of love, compassion and active concern for the sacred lives of all human beings as an affirmation of our faith and obedience to God."

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