Chat room threat prompts concern at Chambersburg school

May 13, 2003|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBRG, Pa. - The threat may just have been an Internet rumor or hoax, but officials at J. Frank Faust Junior High School were taking no chances Monday morning after learning of a chat room conversation during which it was stated a student was bringing a gun to school.

The incident, which may have its roots in racial tensions at the school, contributed to about 200 of the school's 1,251 eighth- and ninth-grade students either not showing up at school or being pulled from classes during the course of the day, according to Principal Rick Keller.

"We had our typical 7 or 8 percent absenteeism, but parents took 120 more out," Keller said.

The rumor reached Chambersburg Area School District Superintendent Edwin Sponseller at about 11:15 p.m. Sunday when a board member called to tell him he had received calls from district residents "concerning a rumor that a student was going to bring a gun to school today."


Sponseller said he called Keller a few minutes later and "he had already gotten half a dozen calls."

"We believe these rumors originated from some type of altercation in the cafeteria" two weeks ago, said Sponseller. That led to a rumor that a fight was going to be held after school last Thursday.

One of the cafeteria fights involved one black and one white female, the other a black male and a white male. Both occurred on the same day during the same lunch period, Sponseller said.

One of the girls hit Keller during the altercation and one of the boys was carrying a knife, Sponseller alleged. Both were suspended and face possible expulsion, he said.

About half a dozen uniformed Chambersburg police were on hand last Thursday and there was no fight, according to the superintendent. Police and administrators were at the school before students arrived Monday morning.

"These incidents appear to have racial overtones," according to Sponseller, who said there were tensions between "a handful" of black and white students. "I think it's a community problem which may manifest itself more often at this age level than at the elementary level or the high school level."

About 16 percent of the school's students are minorities, a figure that includes black, Hispanic, Asian and other groups, according to Keller. Sponseller said a program, Help Increase the Peace, which teaches racial tolerance, has been in place for several years.

"We had a similar situation about 12 years ago, but it was by telephone," Sponseller said.

"We had a normal opening, but kids were held in home room for an extended period of time," Sponseller said. While in their classes, students were addressed over the intercom by Keller and Police Chief Michael DeFrank. They were told that the school and police will not tolerate the presence of weapons on school property.

"We had two kids who came in and showed us" copies of the chat room conversation, said Ted Rabold, the assistant superintendent for pupil services. Those hard copies provided by the students were turned over to police.

The chat room is ICQ, according to Rabold, and is used by people across the country. "A lot of our kids are on it every night," he said.

"We're not even sure a crime has been committed," Sponseller said of the Web rumor.

Although it may have been nothing more than a hallway rumor that reached the Internet, Keller said, "We'd rather be proactive on this than wait for something to happen."

In addition to the police presence and additional staff working the hallways Monday morning, Sponseller said another police officer will be added at the school through the rest of the year. One Chambersburg officer is already assigned to the school, but he said arrangements were being made to have another borough patrol officer on duty.

"We'll use whatever resources it takes" to maintain order, said School Board President Stanley J. Helman, who was also at the school Monday morning.

"It's been brewing for a long time," Michelle Davis of Chambersburg said of tensions at the school her son attends.

"We tell him to stay away" from trouble, Davis said. "If he hears anything is going to happen, he should tell a teacher."

"I wasn't concerned enough to pick him up," she said. "I thought they had it under control."

Sponseller confirmed there were reports of a handful of white students wearing white T-shirts "that may be denoting white power. They denied it ... but agreed not to wear them."

"As our community become more diverse, I think we'll have more problems," Sponseller said. The attitudes some students learn at home come into the schools, he said.

He said the key is to reach those students now, so the families they raise will be more understanding.

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