Summer break this year will not only provide students with their much anticipated vacation days; it will also give school officials and families, still reeling from the shock of the multiple shootings around the country, time to figure out how to rebuild a sense of safety in their schools.
School officials have been put on their guard in the wake of deadly gunfire in Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oregon, as evidenced by their quick response to recent student threats.A student in Saginaw, Mich., was suspended after threatening in a yearbook message to "shoot you all."
Two students in Lead, S.D., were kicked out for threatening to kill other students. A high school student in Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb, was suspended for threatening to kill a teacher, then adding: "I'm just messing with your minds."
School Superintendent Jamon Kent of Springfield, Ore., says he hopes a balance can be struck as schools try to retain a quality education while solving security woes.
But he admits his own district's nightmare - in which a 15-year-old is accused of shooting two classmates to death and injuring 22 others May 21 after killing his parents - hasn't given him the answers on how to balance tougher security, closer monitoring of problem children and timely intervention without running schools with a "terrorist mentality."
"We may soon see kids being locked in, fences placed around school, razor wire and metal detectors," Kent said. "I'm not sure our communities, parents or our kids want that to occur."
When President Clinton visited Springfield's Thurston High School on Saturday, he told an assembly: "We want something constructive to come out of this." Clinton has asked Education Secretary Richard Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno to develop an "early warning guide" that might help prevent the kind of youth rage that has resulted in the violent outbursts.
"The tough issue is: `How do they react without overreacting?' " said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.
While some criticize such punishments as overreactions, a school administrator in Naperville defended his school's quick action.
"You can't mess around with it," said Ross Truemper, an assistant principal at Naperville Central High School. "Even if they're joking, you can't make that call. You can't see what's in a person's mind. It's either a cry for help or a cry for action."
In northern Virginia, Fairfax County schools have a firm policy of removing a student who makes a threat while the seriousness of the threat is determined, said school spokeswoman Kitty Porterfield.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has intervened in cases involving metal detectors and students' free speech, has not monitored the latest round of suspensions and expulsions, said spokeswoman Emily Whitfield.
Organizations on school safety, too busy dealing with the crises themselves, have not yet gathered statistics on this side effect of the school shootings.
While some suspensions may be severe punishment, given the nature of the offense, "the reality is that there is concern in the community and principals can't afford not to deal with the issue as sternly as possible. . .," said John Lammel, associate executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.