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'Life as we knew it was just not the same'

April 20, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Five years ago today, a dozen students and a teacher at a high school outside Denver died in a shooting spree by two students.

Despite widespread changes to school safety in the Tri-State area and beyond, could what happened at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, happen here?

Some say it could happen anywhere.

Steven Edwards, vice president of the Washington-based National Crime Prevention Council, said the Columbine rampage was among the most dramatic and vivid moments he can remember. Edwards, like many others, watched the events as they unfolded on a television at his place of work, which at the time was a high school in Connecticut.

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"Being a principal, my immediate reaction was to put myself in that situation. ..." Edwards said. "I get goose bumps just talking about it."

On April 20, 1999, two Columbine High School students - Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - walked into their Littleton, Colo., school with guns and homemade bombs. Following an approximately 15-minute assault, 12 students, a teacher and the gunmen were dead.

Edwards said he believes an incident like Columbine could happen again.

"I would not like to believe anyone's naive enough to believe it couldn't happen," Edwards said. "The opportunity is there; it's something we all have to be conscious of."

Edwards said one reason it could happen again is the "human nature" of falling into old patterns and complacency and the fact that school officials have so many issues to deal with, from test scores to budgets to dropout rates.

"Trying to keep all these balls in the air is difficult for school principals, superintendents and so on," he said.

Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan, who was working in the Baltimore school system on the day of the Columbine attack, called it one of the most horrible days in her career.

"Obviously, in the wake of Columbine it just had a profound impact on schools. We felt more vulnerable than we had before, like after 9/11," Morgan said. "Life as we knew it was just not the same."

Morgan said safety is a top concern at schools in the district, and that measures implemented in the wake of Columbine include the interaction of safety specialists/security officers inside the schools and more and better-trained counselors.

Morgan declined to provide specifics about security measures, but said fostering a positive, comfortable environment for students is a key to deterring violence. She said officials look more closely now at incidents of bullying, threats and students who appear to be isolated or alienated.

"When you see a student that is isolated and alienated," it's important to reach out. "In reaching out, you can sometimes prevent even just minor things," Morgan said. "These were kids that walked around in trench coats and made threats to people."

Morgan said there also is a concern about "over-securing" to the point where students and staff are uncomfortable. Morgan said relying too heavily on an extensive police presence, metal detectors and cameras can make students feel like they are "in a police barricade."

"We have to have a healthy balance to protect our students without making them afraid," she said.

North Hagerstown High School Principal Robert "Bo" Myers said the feeling of vulnerability school officials felt after Columbine led many to overreact when dealing with issues of school safety in the days and months after the attack. Myers said the measures seemed appropriate based on "the climate at the time."

"People were scared, scared for the schools and scared for the kids," Myers said. "If a kid said 'boo,' we were doing threat assessments and everything else."

Myers said the Columbine incident also led to some cases of unfair profiling based on things like choice of clothing.

Myers said Columbine did prompt schools to go to great lengths to increase security. Schools locally looked at plans of action to be implemented in the event of a violent episode, began training staff to identify behavioral patterns of troubled students and secured buildings with lock changes and cameras, among other changes, he said.

Myers said the concern exists that complacency could, over time, open the door for a similar incident, even in the Tri-State region.

"The further we get from the tragedy, there seems to be a return to homeostasis, a return to normalcy," he said.

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