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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

Grace Under Pressure of Tragedy

For rookie principal, events in Colorado cast shadow over day at school.

May 09, 1999|DOUG ADRIANSON | Doug Adrianson is editor of the opinion pages of The Times Ventura County Edition

Pick any job to try out. Pick any time to try it. You could hardly select a more volatile combination than the one I landed in last week: I spent half a day as principal of Westlake High School.

This during the hypersensitive aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, while scary rumors continued to swirl through Ventura County schools and the string of students arrested for making bombs or threats or unfunny jokes grew longer.

I was there as a participant in the annual Principal for a (Half) Day program sponsored by the Conejo Valley Unified School District and the Thousand Oaks / Westlake Village Chamber of Commerce. Last year I dropped in on an elementary school; this time I requested a public high school.

Then came Columbine.

I was amazed by the pressure--and by the grace with which Principal Curt Luft and his team of administrators handle it. Thanks in large part to their well-laid foundation of rapport with students and parents, Westlake wasn't one of the numerous schools in Ventura County forced to evacuate because of copycat threats inspired by the Columbine tragedy. Luft and his crew stepped up their rumor-control efforts, their already high profile on campus and their vigilant follow-up of any and all reports of potential problems.

Their strategy was low-key--they didn't scurry to outlaw trench coats or Goth attire, as some schools did. But when dicey situations arose, they stepped right in.

One of those involved a spiral-bound notebook found by some students and brought to the office. In white on its black cover were ominous symbols and hateful slogans. Inside, drawings of semiautomatic weapons covered several pages. Another showed a gas can pouring out a puddle of flames. Other pages held the crude bylaws of some sort of group dedicated to harassing gays, Jews and every other minority. Still another--most worrisome in light of recent events--bore a list of names.

Luft explained how he and his staff had quickly figured out which student owned the notebook and called in the ninth-grader and his parents for counseling. A sheriff's deputy also spoke with them. The parents came in a bit defensive, Luft said, but soon changed their attitude.

"They might not have taken it so seriously except for what happened in Colorado," he said. "So if anything good can come out of a tragedy, I guess that's it."

In a more routine bit of crisis control, Luft and Dean of Students David Graber convened a conference between two male students involved in an escalating series of fights, the most recent of which left a friend of one with a deep gash in his shoulder, inflicted with a broken beer bottle or a knife. Although most of the incidents had occurred at weekend parties off campus, Luft and Graber summoned both youths and their parents for a peace talk.

"Where is this going to end?" Graber asked. "Is it going to be a gun next week? Do you really want to end up dead? This whole thing started with a look"--challenging stares exchanged at a local mall. "What is it going to take to end it?"

After all sides were heard, the young men and their parents signed contracts vowing to end the feud and ignore any further goading from others to fight another round. One violation will bring expulsion. Then the two youths were left alone to talk things over.

Watching both boys' parents agonize, I couldn't suppress a twinge of relief that my own son is beyond the high school years. Yet fear in our schools is a problem for all of us. Our society, our future, depends on raising kids who respect themselves and each other, who can deal with their problems and seek help when they need it. Fortunately, the vast majority of Westlake students seem to be doing exactly that.

Luft took me on a tour of busy classrooms filled with hard-working teachers and kids who appeared eager and engaged. A journalism class peppered me with questions about the biz I'm in. Counselors labored to draw up schedules for the 2,025 students expected next fall--while reserving time to talk with any student who needed an ear.

In all, it was a typical day at a well-run school--the sort of sunny day that makes students and staff alike pine for summer vacation still more than a month away. Yet the shadow of Columbine could be felt. Could something like that happen here? There is only so much school officials can do. Beyond that, responsibility lies with students, parents and the community at large.

"It is more important for parents to be involved in their children's lives in high school than at any other time," Luft said. He honors the many parents who volunteer at Westlake High and encourages others to "provide a proper environment at home, know where your kids are on the weekends and don't fall for that old 'everybody's doing it' line. Your kids want that kind of support."

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