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Fear Clouds School Openings

The doors open, the hallways fill, the cliques reunite, the classes begin. So it goes each year, when students across the country head back to school.

But is it just like any other year?

A few months after the Colorado and Georgia school shootings - and within weeks of summer shooting incidents seemingly spurred by racial or ethnic hatred - schools nationwide are opening their doors warily.

"It's a mixed mood," said Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. "There's a real current of optimism running smack into just a dread of potential violence."

School officials recovering from last spring's shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., spent a busy summer installing metal detectors, practicing emergency drills, adding security cameras and two-way radios, crafting dress codes and book bag bans and trying to hire counselors.

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Students vowed to break the conspiracy of silence about dangerous classmates; parents promised to parent; lawmakers promised to get tough no matter where they stood on gun control. On Aug. 17, the White House launched a series of television and radio public service messages featuring students talking about their fears and President Clinton urging parents to talk to young children about safety.

"We'll probably have more metal detectors and preventing book bags," said Maya Hughley, 17, who starts her senior year at Jesup Scott High School in Toledo, Ohio, next week. "Columbine had a major impact on schools, but you can't make too big a deal of everything. You just have to mentally be prepared."

Along with increased security, many recent school openings included rallies and assemblies to ease community fears. Before classes began at Columbine High, students, teachers and staff held a "Take Back the School" rally. A U.S. flag that had been at half-staff since the April 20 shootings was finally raised.

In Charlotte, N.C., parent Blanche Penn was reassured about the safety of her two children at an open house by the district. That, she said, gave her hope for the new year.

"I think, you know, how the news media can get everybody hyped up," she said. "It's good to know schools are taking every precaution that they can."

Last year, Penn's son was afraid to go this middle school after the Colorado shootings

Elementary school principals reported in a recent survey that more parents were asking about their children's safety after the spring incidents. And some parents even have opted for home schooling.

Parents and children also are worried about how school officials will treat students who seem different. Though Columbine's principal asked students to be more tolerant, given that the gunmen had been viewed as social misfits at the school, many other schools will welcome back students with increased monitoring of their dress and other behavior.

"We don't want to see a model where children who wear trenchcoats or go on the Internet become instantly classified as kooks and crazy," said Larry Gray, father of 17-year-old Quentin, who attends Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington. "A lot of these kids are really underestimated and sharp as tacks."

Beverly Barry, a parent and town official in Ludlow, Mass., says the tragedies elsewhere have given parents there a new resolve to pay more attention to their children.

"You keep thinking it's never going to happen," said Barry. "But everybody is trying to stay aware of it. People aren't closing their eyes to things."

"You have to get back to the basics and you have to get back to family atmosphere and family support."

For more information about what parents can do if they suspect a kid is being bullied by a classmate, read "Warding Off Child Bullies."


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