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High school fear

Rumors of weapons, violence swirl at North Hagerstown High

Rumors of weapons, violence swirl at North Hagerstown High

March 11, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD and BRIAN SHAPPELL

pepperb@herald-mail.com
shappell@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Rumors of a gun at North Hagerstown High School prompted more than 100 parents to pull their children out of classes Thursday, transforming the school's auditorium into a checkpoint and keeping the principal on the phone.

Principal Robert "Bo" Myers on Thursday fielded about 50 calls from parents who wanted to know what was going on at the school, which, following an out-of-school rumble over the weekend and an in-school fight Monday, has been brimming with rumors that weapons would be brought through its doors.

Myers spent hours Thursday reassuring parents that the rumors of violence, which started early in the week, were unsubstantiated.

"These are my children during the day," he said. "I'm sensitive that these are their kids."

North High, which usually is staffed with one Hagerstown Police Department officer, had extra officers on duty Wednesday and Thursday, he said.

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Myers said rumors were rekindled Thursday as students anticipated the late-week return to school of one of the students involved in the weekend and Monday fights.

"We started getting rumors that people were bringing guns to school, knives to school," he said.

Myers said Thursday's rumors of the student's return were not true. "That kid's not even going to be in school," today, he said.

That student, who was suspended and has been enrolled in an alternative school program, will not attend school at North High for "quite a while," Myers said.

Myers said another student was suspended earlier this week, but attended classes at North High on Thursday and will continue to do so.

Myers said although there are racial tensions at the school, as there are at any school with a diverse population, it would be unfair to characterize the recent incidents as racially motivated.

Myers said that despite tensions that accompany differences in cultures, there is not a strict racial divide at the school.

Hagerstown Police Department Sgt. Johnny Murray said he believed the matter had been dealt with on the school and judicial levels earlier this week.

"I thought it was squashed and over and done with. Apparently, the rumor mill got started, and it kept feeding the fire," Murray said.

Murray said the alleged assailant in Monday's incident was charged with second-degree assault. He said the weekend fight involved two black students and the Monday incident involved a black student and a white "Goth" student.

At lunchtime Thursday, after a morning of escalating rumors about a gun and when students have the greatest access to their cellular phones, calls were made to parents, who started showing up at the school to pick up their children, Myers said.

Barb Sweeney, 40, came for her son, a junior, at about 1:30 p.m. She had gotten a call 45 minutes earlier telling her that "someone's got a gun."

"Like any of (the parents), we don't know what's going on," she said.

Kelly Wright, 49, a FOX News reporter, picked up his senior and freshman sons at the school. Through his experience as a reporter, Wright said he's covered similar stories.

"Unfortunately, it happens," he said. "It's just the uncertainty of it."

Senior Ben Kelly, 18, who was leaving the school at about 2 p.m., which is when he normally leaves for a class at Hagerstown Community College, said, "I think it's blown out of proportion ... The fear is irrational. A lot of the reaction is irrational."

Andy Smith, a parent of a North High senior, said his daughter is "afraid to go to school" in the wake of this week's events because she fears she will be attacked because she's black. Smith said some members of Black Men Who Care, an offshoot of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, planned to accompany black students to school today.

"I plan to be present tomorrow to make sure my kid gets to school safe," Smith said.

Just inside a school entrance, a student aide sat at the auditorium doors with the school's list of students and their class schedules on his lap. Parents would give the aide their child's name and another student aide would go to that student's classroom to pull him or her out of class. The parent and child then went to the school's registrar for a final verification before leaving the school.

Myers, standing in the auditorium, said he would not be a responsible administrator if he did not allow students to be picked up by their concerned parents.

"This is the calm out of the chaos," he said, pointing to the parents who were waiting for their children in what he called a "controlled environment."

Carol Mowen, the school system's public information officer, said she did not know how often threats come into county schools each year.

"Rumors and innuendoes occur in school environments quite often," she said. "School staff continually respond to students' needs and make sure they follow up on rumors that would occur."

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