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W.Va. town meeting seeks to end fear

May 09, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Almost 200 people came to a Martinsburg park Sunday afternoon searching for ways to end the climate of fear that has gripped the county's schools.

The emergency town meeting in War Memorial Park was a direct response to the bomb scare that cleared 25 schools across Berkeley County Friday afternoon.

No bombs were found, but tensions remain high with the recent slayings at a Littleton, Colo. high school last month and "Black Monday" rumors of more violence in schools today.

"This is bigger than a school problem. This is a community issue," said Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon. "We're here to ask for everyone's help in dealing with this."

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Arvon and Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, listened as about 30 people offered opinions on everything from the lack of parental involvement in schools to the need for more discipline at home and in school.

One Martinsburg woman said she was "scared to death" by last week's bomb scare, adding children today "have a lot of hate in them."

Some of the students at the two-hour meeting complained they were not told about the bomb threat on Friday and said they have been told not to spread rumors.

"Students aren't spreading rumors," said one Hedgesville student. "They're just trying to get information."

Other parents criticized the school district's handling of Friday's bomb scare, complaining evacuations were disorganized at some schools and left parents unable to locate their children.

Arvon apologized to those parents and acknowledged the district could have done a better job in evacuating about 13,000 students.

Adding he does want to discourage students from reporting rumors of violence, Arvon said the district investigates every rumor.

The suggestion of placing parents in schools in a program similar to neighborhood watches was met with enthusiastic applause, as were other initiatives that stressed parental involvement.

"Too many people are using the schools and the malls as babysitters," said Kevin Lilly of Hedgesville.

Unger, who organized Sunday's meeting as a response to rising community anxiety, said deterrents such as metal detectors and school uniforms do not reach the root of what drives children to call in a bomb threat or pick up a gun.

"I want to hear people's concerns," said Unger, "But I also want to know what the community is willing to do to work toward solutions."

Unger said he is working on legislation that would boost the status of a first-offense bomb threat from a misdemeanor to a felony.

He added he would like to see more emphasis on ethics, civics and spirituality in schools.

With the amount of copycat bomb threats on the rise, Unger said every threat needs to be taken and dealt with seriously.

"If we get complacent then that's when something will happen," said Unger. "Real or not, the perception is creating fear in our community."

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