Kids out of sight, parents fret

Sun Staff

The unnerving sign-off to the letter left by the sniper Saturday night outside the Ponderosa steakhouse - "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time" - was enough to shutter school systems throughout the Richmond area for two days.

But not in Maryland.

In Montgomery County - the site of the sniper's 13th attack yesterday morning in Aspen Hill - school officials said they had been told of the note's general content and were advised by police to keep schools open anyway and continue under lockdown.

In Prince George's County - home to the youngest victim so far, 13, the only one attacked on school grounds - school officials said they learned of the specific threat to children only when they saw Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose on CNN yesterday. Only then did they have all the information - and decide schools would open again today.

That wasn't the decision some parents would have liked.

"I feel I have to take my daughter home as fast as I can," said Pichai Kulprasertrat, who picked up 11-year-old Melissa before the day had ended at Argyle Middle School, barely a mile from where a 35-year-old bus driver was killed before dawn yesterday. "If they had closed, I would have felt a lot better."

Relaxed briefly

Slowly, as the sniper moved farther south, with Saturday's shooting more than 100 miles from Aspen Hill, some parents had started to relax, even wonder why their children still couldn't take field trips or play football.

The kids were getting antsy and wanted to run around outside after school; some were getting into fights. Though the sniper has killed five in Montgomery County, he hadn't killed anyone there since Oct. 3, nearly three weeks.

"When I turned on the news this morning, it was all I could do not to burst into tears," said Silver Spring resident Michelle Turner, a mother of five children ages 7 through 16. "People were maybe lulled into a false sense of security thinking he'd moved 100 miles south of here."

In the areas surrounding Aspen Hill, many of the schools had just half of their students show up for class yesterday. At Strathmore Elementary, barely a mile from the site of the most recent attack, only 10 percent of the school's 822 students came to school, said school system spokesman Brian J. Porter. Attendance was good in schools farther away, he said.

Getting to school - for both students and teachers - was a massive headache. With traffic backed up for miles in many directions and intermittent roadblocks along the way, some schools opened with just a handful of faculty members.

'Code red' precautions

After reports of shots fired near Strathmore, the school and reportedly its neighbor, Argyle Middle, were under what officials call a "code red" for part of the afternoon.

The lights were turned off. Students were told to sit either on the floor or under their desks or were corralled in the gymnasium for safety. Students were forbidden from walking home, parents said.

Police responded in force by land and by air, and "it's believed to be a false alarm," Porter said. "That community had already been pretty well jittered by the ongoing events."

Dewitt Wood Jr. picked up his fourth-grade son, Dewitt III, at Strathmore. "I think they should have closed schools like Virginia did," he said. "If I were the superintendent, I would have made the call at least for a day or two. ...

"I guess they're thinking we don't want [the sniper] to win."

The 9-year-old said there wasn't much schooling going on - especially not after the code red drew all students into the gym. "After lunch we just played games. We were throwing the ball. Then they said 'Sit down,' just in case somebody was out there," he said.

Patty Rapp, vice president for educational issues for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said she is confident that schools remain "the safest place" for her three children.

She has altered her routine slightly - instead of showing up early at the bus stop, she and her kids get there with only about a minute to spare. "I don't want to be standing out on a busy street corner any longer than I need to," she said.

But she doesn't want to take away the routine that children desperately need.

"This note is only going to make parents worry more than they already are," Rapp said. "I think we can't keep uprooting their lives." Besides, she said, if schools were closed, many of the children would just be at home, unsupervised, because many parents work. "They're not going to stay in," she said.

Top elected officials from jurisdictions throughout the Washington region met with Moose and officials of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms late Monday and discussed, among other things, the threat to children in the latest missive from the sniper.

Authorities recommended against closing schools. Officials were expected to share the information with their local educational leaders.

Most other area school systems remained on alert yesterday but didn't alter their schedules much.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he supported the decision to keep schools open.

'Wrong thing to do'

After talking yesterday to county executives, "we agreed that closing schools in those jurisdictions at this time is the wrong thing to do ... ," he said. "Closing at this time would unwisely disrupt our children's education."

In Richmond, the 11 closed school districts with more than 150,000 students will reopen today. Officials there said they had decided to close the schools on the advice of law enforcement officials.

"Based on what the police were telling us," said Jason Moore, vice chairman of the Powhatan County, Va., school system, "we did what they asked us to do."

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Tricia Bishop, Laura Loh, Howard Libit and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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