Sniper Arrests Ease Tensions For Districts

By Rhea R. Borja — October 30, 2002 8 min read
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The safety measures that schools in the Washington region enforced over the past three weeks during a string of deadly sniper attacks were perhaps excessive at times, some school security and risk experts say. But the precautions, they are quick to add, were a natural response to an unprecedented crisis.

As schools returned to a more normal footing late last week after two arrests in the case, experts and educators were already mulling the lessons that school leaders could learn from the ordeal.

More than 1 million students and roughly 65,000 teachers in about 30 districts, some as far as 125 miles from Washington, had experienced “lockdowns” or other heightened security measures. Four of those school districts also shut down for two days early last week.

The measures included locking doors, stationing adults at exits, and forbidding students to go outside. Administrators also canceled outdoor practices and games for sports teams, held recess indoors, postponed homecoming dances, and scrapped field trips or other off-campus activities.

The four districtwide closings occurred in the Richmond, Va., area after a threat to children was included in a letter one of the suspects reportedly left there.

“Schools are facing issues of terrorism and violence that they never saw before,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif. “The Columbine [high school shootings] raised the bar, and it’s been raised once again in Washington.

“When you have a terrorist who has such a long litany of victims,” he said of the sniper, “it creates a whole new level of fear and concern.”

Weighing the Alternatives

Mr. Stephens and other safety experts say it’s not easy for administrators to weigh the pros and cons of alternative responses to crises they’ve never dealt with before. Schools also are operating in an increasingly litigious society, he pointed out, and administrators don’t want to take risks that may have legal as well as safety repercussions.

Prolonged lockdown-style measures may be harmful, however, if they’re not well planned and executed, Mr. Stephens continued.

“When we overreact and shut everything down, that can be problematic,” he said. “You want to be prudent and reasonable, but that doesn’t definitely mean going to a 24-hour lockdown mode.”

Some other experts agreed.

“In the face of a clearly low statistical risk [of being shot], the urgency and level of concern exceeded the actual danger,” argued David Ropeik, the director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, referring to the Washington-area precautions.

Mr. Ropeik, a co-author of RISK: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You, said his niece attends a middle school in Montgomery County, Md., the Washington suburb where seven of the 13 sniper victims were shot.

He said that the day a 13-year old boy was critically wounded in a sniper attack outside a middle school in neighboring Prince George’s County, officials at her school announced that students could not leave their classrooms or the building. When they finally did leave, he said, students had to hold hands with somebody else as a precaution.

“They don’t need that kind of policing,” Mr. Ropeik contended. “Clearly, the action was taken more to reassure the parents and administrators than to make the kids safe.”

Such action could also exacerbate children’s fears, he said. “When we introduce a risk to a kid,” he said, “it’s fear-inducing.”

But school officials’ reactions were also understandable, Mr. Ropeik said, because adults are naturally inclined to be more protective of children than of adults.

“Out of an ancient genetic imperative, we’re more afraid of risks to our kids than to ourselves,” he said. "[So] we’re more prone to overreact to risks to children. Look at what Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said when the boy was shot: ‘He’s getting personal now,’” referring to the shooter.

While educators’ reactions to the shootings may have temporarily increased their students’ fears, the students may also have felt reassured to know that schools were doing everything they could to ensure children’s safety, Mr. Ropeik acknowledged.

“The trust factor is very important,” he said. “If you trust the folks who are supposed to protect you and they do, then you’ll trust them in future risks as well.”

Arrests Ease Anxieties

Ten people have died and three have been seriously wounded since the shootings began Oct. 2.

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 24, local, state, and federal law-enforcement officers converged on a Frederick County, Md., rest stop to apprehend two suspects in connection with the sniper killings. Officials arrested 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo about 60 miles northwest of Washington.

As of last Friday, most of the school districts’ extra security measures had been lifted.

“Metro Richmond schools, effective immediately, will lift all restrictions associated with this regional trauma,” stated an Oct. 24 joint letter to the public from the superintendents of Virginia’s Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield county districts and the Richmond city schools. “No lockdowns, no field trip cancellations, no student-activity restrictions will be there tomorrow.”

In Maryland’s 134,000-student Montgomery County district, schools also resumed normal activities the day after the arrests.

“All of us, everyone who works in our school system, are breathing a sigh of relief,” said Jerry D. Weast, the Montgomery County schools superintendent.

Gregory Dunston, a guidance counselor and the cross-country coach for Montgomery County’s 1,800-student Walter Johnson High School, said he was glad he could start to plan team activities several days in advance, rather than wait day to day to find out whether his runners could practice and compete.

He added that the mood in his school had lightened since the suspects were caught. “The kids are excited and relieved,” Mr. Dunston said last Thursday. “There was some talking and laughing in the halls. Before, you didn’t see that.”

Security Costs Mount

On top of the anxiety felt by students and staff members, the negative impact on classroom learning, and the disappointment over canceled activities, the sniper shootings have come with a price tag for schools in the region around the nation’s capital.

The stepped-up security over the past three weeks has cost districts thousands of dollars that have yet to be totaled.

But help is on the way. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released $600,000 in federal money to help schools affected by the attacks. Maryland and Virginia will receive $250,000 each, while the District of Columbia will receive $100,000, under Project SERV, the School Emergency Response to Violence program.

But it will take even more time to gauge the deeper effects the events of this month have had on schools.

During most of October, the playing fields and playgrounds at schools and community recreation departments throughout metropolitan Washington—an area of some 4.2 million people—were empty and silent. (“Sniper Attacks Prompt District ‘Lockdowns,’” Oct. 16, 2002.)

The grass in school stadiums lay untrodden, and no cheers echoed off the bleachers. Private schools, such as those of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, joined their public school counterparts in curtailing activities.

Inside, though, schools bustled with activity: Cheerleaders practiced their routines in classrooms, cross-country runners jogged laps through the halls, and football players spent extra time bench-pressing and lifting barbells in weight rooms. And with outdoor recess canceled in elementary schools, younger children played charades, made paper masks, and watched videos under the extra vigilance of teachers and parents.

But it just wasn’t normal school life, educators said.

For instance, football players at Walter Johnson High held practice in the cafeteria, said Mark DeStefano, the head junior-varsity football coach. He said that while his players did the best they could, it was frustrating for them not to be practicing outside and playing games. His team missed three games.

“Even when it rains, we practice outside as long as [there’s no] lightning,” Mr. DeStefano said. “But when something like this goes on, it creates facility challenges. This has put a strain on everybody—coaches, parents, kids.”

But he understood that there are bigger concerns than football. “You have to think of safety first, and once you’ve secured that,” he said, “you can worry about other aspects of life.”

Leo Volcy, a 14-year-old freshman football player at Walter Johnson, said he’s been bored ever since football games were canceled and practices were moved inside. Practice used to take up to 21/2 hours out of his afternoons, he said last week. “When you go home, there’s nothing else to do,” he said. “I have so much time to do my homework now.”

His aunt and guardian, Florence Benjamin, understood her nephew’s disappointment, but applauded the Montgomery County district’s decision to cancel sports. “It was the right decision to make because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said shortly before the arrests in the sniper case. “It’s really risky for them to play in an open field.”

A few days before the arrests, the mood in schools and throughout the region was further chilled. That was when police released part of a letter allegedly written by the sniper, which warned: “Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.”

Stewart D. Roberson, the Hanover County, Va., superintendent, said the letter—left near a restaurant in the Hanover County town of Ashland that was the site of the 12th shooting—convinced him and other Richmond-area superintendents that they should close schools for two days. Even after schools there reopened the third day, Oct. 23, all sports and outdoor activities were banned, as well as indoor activities after 6 p.m.

“Schools are not immune to society’s ills,” Mr. Roberson said of the district’s precautions.

Meanwhile, schools elsewhere in the country thought twice about coming to Washington for their annual trips. About half the schools scheduled for trips to the nation’s capital this fall have canceled, said Cheryl Clemens, an owner of Educational Travel Consultants, a Hendersonville, N.C., company that specializes in school travel.

Thomas J. Bialk, the principal of the 700-student St. Clair Middle School in St. Clair, Mich., didn’t cancel his school’s trip, but he postponed it until March.

“I couldn’t in good conscience take students, chaperones, and teachers into a potentially dangerous situation,” he said.


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