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Colo. shootings impact Tri-state area schools

April 26, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

In the wake of last Tuesday's school killings in Littleton, Colo., there has been a bomb threat at Smithsburg High School, suspensions of students in Franklin County, Pa., and Jefferson County, W.Va., and rumors galore.

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Nearly a week after two students at Columbine High School shocked the country by embarking on a rampage that claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, Tri-State area school administrators tried on Monday to contain the reverberations that have swept across the country.

"We're no different than any school district in the country," said Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District Superintendent Edwin H. Sponseller. "We've got a lot of work on our hands."

Sponseller said the school district has suspended two students - one last Thursday and one on Monday - for up to 10 days for making threats. One is a junior high school student and one is a high school student, he said.

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In addition to the temporary suspensions, the students may be charged by police, Sponseller said.

Chambersburg Police Chief Michael T. DeFrank said investigators questioned one of the students on Monday. No charges have been filed, he said.

The Smithsburg incident began last week when a bomb threat was made against the school, said Ted Meminger, acting deputy chief state fire marshal.

Meminger said authorities may charge a 14-year-old boy in the incident.

He said authorities questioned a "core group of students" on Monday and determined a bomb did not exist.

"There appears to be no conspiracy afoot," he said.

Meminger said the incident may be related to a trespassing incident at the school on Friday night.

Smithsburg police said three teenagers were on the roof and the grounds of the school at about 9 p.m. Friday. The teenagers will be charged with trespassing on educational property, police said.

Meminger said authorities across Maryland have seen an increase in the number of bomb threats since last week's killings in Littleton. He said this was the first in Washington County.

Students eating lunch at Smithsburg High on Monday appeared calm and Principal Jeff Stouffer said the school is safe.

"You don't see anyone freaking out. They're more concerned about graduating and what they're doing Friday night," he said.

Still, administrators said that repercussions from the Littleton tragedy have reverberated throughout area school systems.

Lt. Bruce Smith, commander the Hagerstown barracks of the Maryland State Police, said his troopers have patrolled the county's middle and high schools to reassure parents and students.

"We can't let this incident stop these kids from being able to go to school and get an education in a safe environment," he said.

In Jefferson County, W.Va., school officials suspended a junior high school student who was suspected of planning to bring a gun to school on Monday.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent David W. Markoe said the incident began with an altercation between two students last Wednesday. One student threatened to use a gun, he said.

Markoe said the student has not been in school since Wednesday and school officials have turned the matter over to the Charles Town Police Department.

"We're pretty much satisfied that this is a dead issue," he said.

Because of Littleton, Markoe said teachers and administrators have less tolerance for jokes about violence.

"Maybe three years ago, they could have said something crazy like that and it would have been treated that way," he said.

In addition to real incidents, school officials have been battling rumors.

"Fortunately, none of them seemed to pan out. But we do take them seriously," said Waynesboro (Pa.) High School Principal Larry Bricker. "Rumors do occur. And you do chase rumors for a while."

Bricker said attendance was lower than normal Monday, with some students choosing to stay home because of the unsettled situation.

In an emotionally charged atmosphere, gossip often spreads unchecked, Bricker said. He said students talk about the tragedy at lunch. Their conversations sometimes are overheard by other students and misconstrued.

He said he is confident parents will feel comfortable sending their children back to school today.

"Today was a good day. Hopefully, tomorrow will be another good day," he said.

Washington County Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. said local schools are among the safest in the state. He said teachers and administrators have a heightened sense of awareness as a result of the Littleton tragedy.

"We believe we're even going to be safer than we are," he said.

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