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In Wartime, Schools Seek to Reassure

March 21, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Schools tried to provide clarity and calm as the nation’s students, confronting a new war, responded with apprehension, curiosity and scattered walkouts.

From army towns to city centers, moods varied widely among the nation’s public and private schools serving about 52 million students. School leaders practiced lock downs for terrorism, offered extra counseling and tried to put war into a context beyond TV images.

``I’m proud to see my school like this,″ said Andrea Sempertegui, 15, who cut her day short at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., to join a rainy protest of the war. ``I hope the rest of the country sees and realizes now that teenagers are informed.″

Many students seemed subdued, but not indifferent. They seemed just not yet able to come to grips with their country’s push to depose Saddam Hussein. Teachers said many of the students understood the gravity of the moment because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

``Because it’s so far away, it really doesn’t feel like it could touch us right now,″ said Lori Tornetta, 17, a junior at Methacton High School in suburban Philadelphia. ``But then when I think about what could happen if it came over to America, I get scared. I’m not used to this.″

In Chicago, school officials provided extra security to schools with significant numbers of Arab-American students. The system also suspended school trips outside the state.

Teachers reported poignant moments, from the posting of yellow ribbons on lightposts to the singing of ``God Bless America″ in the war’s first hours. But there were sobering signs, too, as school police increased patrols and teachers sent home trauma coping tips.

``For most kids, it’s all about ’How is this going to affect me? How is this going to change my world?‴ said Galen Hoffstadt, principal of Luther Jones Elementary in Corpus Christi, Texas, where many children are military dependents.

``If we can give them a picture that it’s not going to change their world directly _ most of them _ then we can keep them calm and help them go about their lives,″ she said.

In the nation’s capital, elementary schools prepared for terrorism by having students get ready for a ``three-day camping trip″ _ 72 hours of emergency school sheltering. Teachers asked parents to send in backpacks of food, clothes and supplies, and many complied.

``Of course there are additional pressures living in this area, but we’re careful not to convey that to the children,″ said David Mason, assistant superintendent for Washington, D.C. schools. ``We want them to know we are taking every measure to ensure their safety.″

Elsewhere, many teachers said students, particularly young ones, had not much to say about the bombings.

``I think what we’re having for lunch is a bigger topic right now,″ said Katherine Boeve, principal at Mockingbird Elementary School in Ralston, Neb. In nearby Omaha, at the private St. Margaret Mary’s School, Principal Peggy Grennan said: ``There’s probably a sense of sadness, but hope for peace. And that’s what we’re focusing on.″

In Fort Pierce, Fla., social studies teachers at Lincoln Park Academy High School watched the news unfold with students and discussed it with them. The school plans a forum next week to discuss the legitimacy of war.

Several elementary teachers said they would bring up the subject of war only if students asked about it. Other educators have long incorporated the Iraqi conflict into their classrooms.

In Normal, Ill., Kelly Keogh’s international relations students spent weeks debating the Bush’s administration stance. When war began, the class discussion shifted to Turkey’s role in military strategy and this country’s responsibility in a postwar Iraq.

``They’re typical kids, too, though,″ Keogh said. ``As one kid told me, ’I’m just glad that when the full-fledged attacks start, the NCAA (basketball) tournament will still be on.‴

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