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Missing-Children Phenomenon Fuels School-Fingerprinting Programs

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In recent months, the parents of thousands of schoolchildren nationwide have agreed to permit them to be fingerprinted so that the identifying prints could be used in the event the children disappear.

The rapidly expanding movement to fingerprint children has developed, those familiar with local efforts say, in response to the growing anxiety of parents about the phenomenon of "missing children." Each year, experts say, approximately 1.2 million children disappear from their homes, schools, and playgrounds. Some are victims of parental abductions and kidnappings by strangers, others are runaways. In an effort to help locate these missing children, an increasing number of sheriff's offices and school districts have cooperated in the last year to establish voluntary fingerprinting programs for elementary- and secondary-school students across the country.

The current level of public concern about the problem was suggested last week, when a reported 38 million people watched a two-hour television docudrama about a Florida child who disappeared and was later found murdered. Producers of the NBC program, "Adam," said last week they had received thousands of calls from people, including a number of teachers, who thought they had seen some of the missing children whose photographs were shown at the end of the program.

Experts estimate that between 250,000 and 400,000 children are abducted by estranged parents and another 50,000 are kidnapped by strangers. Runaways account for the other 750,000 missing children, they say.

One of the first municipalities to propose fingerprinting its children was Union County, N.J. Last January, the public schools there began a voluntary program and, to date, have fingerprinted 15,000 children, according to Sheriff Ralph Froehlich. In the last 10 months, he says, the Union County sheriff's department has received inquiries about the program from 30 states, more than 200 municipalities, 73 police departments, and 22 sheriff's departments.

Since January, schoolchildren in Brevard County, Fla., Amity, Ore., Bellevue, Mich., and Baton Rouge, La., among other communities, have had their fingerprints recorded. In school districts in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas, Washington State, and West Virginia, the same kinds of programs have begun.

"I think it's another function of the school as a community service agency," said Herb Romey, principal of Amity Elementary School in Amity, Ore., where 80 percent of the student population was fingerprinted last March.

"We're in the child business, and what's good for them, we need to be aware of," Mr. Romey said.

Other school administrators agree. "I thought it would be a good service," said Virginia Worley, principal of Wildwood Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La., which fingerprinted 400 of the school's 425 students last March.

"It took a minimal amount of time," Ms. Worley said, "and the teachers weren't involved at all." The school recruited 15 parents to volunteer to do the actual fingerprinting, she said.

Bills to promote fingerprinting are on legislative agendas in several states. A bill on child-fingerprinting was introduced last January in the New Jersey state legislature, has passed in the Assembly, and is awaiting action in the Senate. Introduced by Representative Angela L. Perun, the bill would require schools to allow county sheriffs to fingerprint kindergarten through 8th-grade children if their parents consent.

And last month, the New York City Council approved and Mayor Edward I. Koch signed into law a voluntary fingerprinting program for the city's approximately one-million children.

In most districts, parents are required to sign forms permitting their children to be fingerprinted.

Proponents of fingerprinting advise parents to compile, with the fingerprints, an up-to-date record on their children. They suggest including a current picture, dental records, and a physical description of the child, including statistics on height, weight, eye and hair color, and scars and birthmarks.

Some school-board members have expressed concern that the fingerprinting is an invasion of privacy and will be misused by local authorities.

But advocates point out that parents, not the authorities, retain the child's fingerprints.

In New Jersey's Union County, materials for the fingerprinting program have been paid for by local service groups, and the actual fingerprinting is done by local government personnel, according to a spokesman in the sheriff's office.

In New York City, the $40,000 cost will be paid by the city. In other areas, supplies and volunteer time are donated, and in one Pennsylvania town teachers have volunteered to pay for the program.

Other School Efforts

Besides helping to fingerprint schoolchildren, some schools are becoming involved in other ways in the effort to curb the number of missing children in the country. On May 25, the first National Missing Children's Day, the parents of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old New York boy who disappeared on his way to his school-bus stop four years ago, appealed to schools to carry out programs to help find children.

They urged school officials to phone parents of absent children to account for them; to check on the background of new registrants to make sure a child is not a kidnap victim; and to enact tighter security provisions to prevent youths from wandering out of the school area during the day.

Schools often receive directories that contain pictures of missing children, such as one published by Child Find, a volunteer organization that helps parents find missing children. Teachers or administrators might recognize a kidnapped child who is registered for classes in a new community, according to Child Find officials.

Schools can also help by checking records. "One of the ways to find missing children is [for schools] to insist on past records," according to Linda Otto, producer of "Adam" and founder of Find the Children, a New York City- and Los Angeles-based organization that advocates stronger penalties for those who abduct children. Indications that a child has moved often, Ms. Otto suggested, could lead to the identification of a parent who is an abductor.

In a recent issue of Principal, the journal of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, John Ourth, principal of Oak Terrace School in Highwood, Ill., provided a "kidnap alert" procedure for principals. Mr. Ourth advised his colleagues to determine who has custody of a child of divorced or separated parents, to distribute to teachers and custodians a photograph of the child's estranged parent if there is the possibility of abduction, and to make sure the child is never alone after a potential abduction has been reported.

"Successful abductions on school grounds typically take 90 seconds or less," Mr. Ourth wrote. For that reason, he suggested principals might consider such measures as moving an entire class to another room if a potential abductor knows the location of his or her child's classroom. In the case of an actual abduction, he advised school officials to try to protect the child, to get a description of the abductor and the vehicle, and to refrain from physical interference. "When we first announced this policy," Mr. Ourth noted, "parents complained about its strictness. After I explained it and it went into effect, however, the dominant reaction was, 'I like this. I know my child is safe."'

School administrators can also protect children by being aware of who is picking them up after school, according to some principals. Ms. Worley said she maintains strict rules about who is allowed to take children from school and requires that non-custodial relatives show "permission" letters from parents before they may leave with a child.

In addition, she said, "I have children where parents bring me custody papers that say 'Do not let anyone take my child.' ... We don't let any child leave unless we know the parents."

And Mr. Romey added that having an alert staff helps avoid problems.

"Just 10 days ago, we had an attempted abduction from our school grounds," he said. The child's custodial parent had warned the principal that the estranged parent might try to abduct the child, so Mr. Romey alerted his staff to the possibility and the parent was not able to leave with the child.

"We might not have been as sharp on our procedures as we were [if the staff hadn't been alerted to the problem]," Mr. Romey said.

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