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Decision time: To watch or wade in?

February 12, 1999

It has been six years at least, but I remember the day and my reactions as clearly as I remember yesterday. Our local Cub Scout pack was sponsoring an outing at the Williamsport Pool, and my son and I went along. Like a lot of overprotective parents, I spent more time watching than swimming. I didn't like what I saw.

In one end of the pool was a little knot of about four or five boys standing chin-deep in the water. Whenever my son approached them, one or two of them would wait until he began to speak, then splash a wave of water into his open mouth, causing him to choke and move away. It wasn't horseplay. Children having fun laugh; these little gnomes just sneered as my son blinked and gasped for air.

As I stood there watching, wanting to involve myself in a children's quarrel, but knowing that I couldn't, I realized that this was only the beginning, that as a parent I would be faced with situation after situation in which I would be unsure whether to wade in or back off.

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Sometimes, the way isn't clear and you just go with your gut. That's what I'm doing today with this column, hoping that I can do some good, but not really knowing for sure.

On. Dec. 11, a student from Boonsboro Middle School committed suicide. The next day school officials called teachers there and asked them to report early on Monday. Dec. 14 for briefing.

At that meeting, the faculty members were told that Maryland State Police would be at the school that day, some in uniform, some not. At the same meeting, teachers advised counselors who were present to contact two of the deceased boy's close friends before other students told them of the suicide.

After some discussions with their parents, the boys were sent for psychiatric evaluation, and staffers were advised to remember that the boys hadn't committed any crimes.

In meetings with the students, counselors were told about rumors of an alleged plot by some students to kill students and teachers. The memory of a year of schoolyard shootings in places like Jonesboro, Ark. did not give anyone the confidence to shrug off such a possibility here.

The children interviewed did talk about a "hit list" and a map supposedly marked with a point where the plotters would rendezvous afterward, but none was ever found. Yet no student could say why they or their schoolmates hadn't approached school officials about those rumors.

On Dec. 18, counselors returned to the school, but were unable to calm the fears of some faculty members, one of whom called me to relate what had taken place, and to question what would happen following the Christmas vacation. Teaching is tough enough without wondering whether some child is going to take a shot at you, she said.

I passed along the information to The Herald-Mail's news department, which did a story Sunday, Dec. 27, in which police and school officials, including Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., said that students' talk was only a rumor.

Some faculty members still weren't convinced, and expressed the fear that the school system was following its usual pattern of trying to keep the unpleasant truth from public view.

What some teachers at Boonsboro Middle fear is not based on anything that's taken place so far, but on what might happen in the future, when the two boys who've been educated outside the school since December come back again.

According to TFC Michael Kretzer, who has investigated the situation, there is nothing to fear.

"There is nothing at all to confirm that there was a plot, no indication to substantiate that there was a pact or anything else," he said.

The boys and their deceased friend dressed alike, mostly in black, Kretzer said, "but that was the only similarity there. There's nothing to indicate they had any intention of doing any harm to themselves or anyone else."

Reassuring the faculty that this is true is a task that falls on Janice Gearhart, the school's principal. I recently met with her and Martha Roulette, the school board's director of student services, about the situation .

Asked if the two boys, now being educated at another site, will return, and when, Roulette said officials "haven't really completed the planning process." She said that school officials are "trying to take care of the needs of the kids, but also of the faculty."

Asked about most students' mood, Gearhart said that for most students, the months after the Christmas vacation tend to drag, in part because of winter weather, in part because they realize the end of the school year is still a long way off. If there's student anxiety over what's happened, Gearhart said, she hasn't felt it. Instead, more students seem concerned about the report cards that recently went out.

As for the faculty, Gearhart said, yes, there's been stress, in part because of the suicide last year of a faculty member and because of new lesson plans required by the central office.

"I don't know if I have a true feel. I'm sure there's a feeling of apprehension out there," she said.

There'll be a satisfactory conclusion, Roulette said, "If we communicate well and make that effort to answer every concern. For those people who need to know we will make sure they have the information they need to have."

As for my concerned faculty member, she seems resigned to the fact that what will be, will be, and that the despite everyone's apprehension. the two boys may indeed return to school.

Absent any evidence, there's nothing I can do about that, and I wonder whether by wading into this situation I've done any good or not. On the one hand, I have to believe it's better for the public to be aware of this situation, but as I learned on that long-ago day by the swimming pool, sometimes just watching doesn't seem to be nearly enough.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of the Herald-Mail newspapers

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