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The Nation

Lesson Plans Taking a Back Seat to Fear

October 08, 2002|FAYE FIORE and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BOWIE, Md. — At school, the doors were locked. Field trips were canceled and afternoon practices postponed. Custodians went from classroom to classroom tilting the blinds so the students could see out but no one could see in. Teachers stood guard at the entrances and parent volunteers fell out to answer the phones.

The series of sniper shootings that had killed six and wounded one since last week crossed into another dimension Monday morning when a child--a 13-year-old boy dropped off by his aunt at Benjamin Tasker Middle School--became victim No. 8.

The shooting sent school districts in the Washington area into yet another "code blue lockdown," frightened students and moved a characteristically composed police chief to tears.

Principals took to their public address systems to announce in the least graphic terms that "another incident has occurred," withholding details of the rifle shot to the chest and abdomen that had critically wounded the boy shortly after 8 a.m. But most students understood the gravity.

The sense of fear and outrage that permeated communities from Maryland to Virginia to Washington could be read on the faces of three husky male parents who peered balefully out the front doors of Tulip Grove Elementary about a mile from the shooting. A small but steady stream of parents bustled in to collect their children while police cars circled the block.

"It's horrible; it's a disaster," said Joan Miller, her face swollen from crying. She loaded her daughter, Briana, into a brown sedan outside Tulip Grove. "If they want to terrorize people, they've really done it now. I've lived here 40 years and there's never been anything like this."

In some ways, it was easier for teachers and staffers to mobilize Monday, following the security precautions they learned last week. At Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Principal Ursula A. Hermann ordered the code blue even before the district made it official. Teachers sat at a table near the main entrance checking IDs, file boxes of emergency cards at the ready.

"I think this week the staff feels more vulnerable than last," Hermann said, walking the halls throughout the day and poking her head into classrooms to ensure all were well. "It's very hard to make sense of how to help yourself, your colleagues, your children to keep some sense of normalcy."

It seemed incongruous, attempting to preserve a routine when children stayed behind classroom doors locked from the inside while 78-degree weather beckoned them out.

The bus had left Westbrook Elementary for a field trip to the Claggett Farm nature preserve when the principal called and instructed the driver to turn around, prompting "a large collective moan" from the fourth- and fifth-graders on board.

Youngsters in gym clothes could be seen running through the windowed hall into the gym for indoor soccer at Westland Middle School. At Bowie High, students were barred from walking the halls without an adult escort. In a fourth-grade classroom in North Bethesda, any time one child had to use the bathroom, the whole class went along.

Six of the eight shootings occurred in Maryland, but the fear reverberated across the Potomac River to Virginia, where children at Swanson Middle School in Arlington were summoned off the playing field for indoor recess usually reserved for when it rains.

Teachers held to talking points hastily distributed in some Maryland schools Monday--"DO NOT turn on your TV or radio. DO NOT allow students on the Internet. LIMIT SPECULATION."

Despite all efforts, many students were upset to learn they could be so vulnerable. "A lot of people are really worried," Angel Caneron, 16, a senior at Bowie High said, her voice trembling.

While some parents raced to retrieve their children, the majority decided they were safer at school. "I'm resisting the urge to hunker down and keep everybody at home," said Gayle Forst, who wanted to keep her 12-year-old daughter after a morning doctor's appointment but was persuaded otherwise. "My daughter told me the odds of anything happening were the same as being struck by lightning. She's more levelheaded than I am."

Schools shifted to crisis mode with notable dispatch and minimal confusion, officials said, following the plan used when the shooting sites were limited to gas stations, a shopping mall, in front of a post office, the grass behind an auto center. So when the shooter moved to a school, everyone knew the drill, but none of it seemed enough.

A meeting of principals was scheduled Monday night to discuss some sort of plan. Teachers at various schools planned to gather this morning to assess what was working and what wasn't. For many, the brainstorming was overshadowed by a single thought.

"The hardest thing," said Tulip Grove Principal David J. Scuccimarra, "is trying to understand how we can live in a world where things like this happen."

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