Fears keep many kids at home

May 03, 1999

Extra security at Local SchoolsBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

False threats of violence kept many students away from Washington County Schools on Monday, including nearly half of North Hagerstown High School.

School administrators, pointing to an otherwise uneventful day, continued to try to reassure parents and students that schools are safe.

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Police officers patrolled school hallways. Bomb-sniffing dogs swept North High before classes started. Police said they found nothing out of the ordinary, but planned to continue their presence in the schools.

On an average day, about 5 percent of students are absent.

But on Monday the absentee rate shot up to at least 10 percent at 28 of the district's 46 schools, including all the middle and high schools, said Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Theresa Flak.


The highest absentee rate was at North High, where 46 percent of students didn't go to school, said Principal David Reeder.

At South Hagerstown High, about 250 of the school's 800 students were absent, said Principal Michael Shockey.

The absentee rates reflected less fear at the elementary schools, although Bester Elementary had an unusual 24 percent of students missing, Flak said.

"People were frightened with all of the rumors, none of which were directed at our school. It's sad that we've changed our lives based on fear," said Bester Principal Drenna Reineck.

Among teachers, the absentee rate was close to normal, with roughly 100 of 1,300 county teachers out, said Donna Newcomer-Coble, supervisor of human resources and teacher personnel.

The hallways at North High on Monday were empty except for administrators and parent volunteers who were keeping watch.

With so many students out, some teachers at North High put off their regularly scheduled lessons. Others will require absent students to make up the work on their own time, Reeder said.

"The teachers did the best they could to keep instruction going," he said.

Starr Bentley, 14, said there were only four students in one of her classes at North High. Another class had just five students.

Even though they came to school, Bentley and her ninth-grade classmates said they were still worried about a repeat of the tragedy in Littleton, Colo.

Others said their parents reassured them their fears were not founded.

"I think it's just a bunch of talk, rumors getting out of hand," said Josh Barnes, a 17-year-old senior at North.

Scott Keasey, 17, didn't think much of his classmates who bought into the fears.

"They just found an opportunity to stay home," he said.

Some students who didn't go to school said they were genuinely afraid something bad would happen at school Monday.

"I was terrified," said Jason Sellers, 13, who was playing baseball with his friends in an empty downtown Hagerstown parking lot instead of going to classes at Northern Middle School.

Jason's mother, Debra Russ, said she left the decision about whether to go to school up to her son.

"I wasn't going to make him. For him not to go, he was really scared," she said.

Jason's friend Dominic Christian, 13, said he also took the rumors of violence seriously.

"I'm still taking it serious because it could happen another day," Dominic said.

Police and school officials said they will continue to check out rumors of violence, a process that can be difficult.

"It's sort of like trying to pin down Jell-O," Reeder said.

Students who make tangible threats face punishment by both the school district and the police.

Torben G. Aarsand, pastor of Haven Lutheran Church in Hagerstown, said parents need to take a rational approach to the widespread panic and find out the facts for themselves from principals.

Aarsand said he reassured his 12-year-old daughter Kay, that everything would be all right when he dropped her off at Northern Middle School on Monday morning.

"We need to be strong as adults and tell our kids we who have taken care of you all these years wouldn't send you into a bad situation," he said.

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