In class, war preparation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With a color-coded map of the Middle East projected onto the classroom wall, pupils in Greg Nelson's eighth-grade social studies class learned that Iraq is about the size of Texas with less than a tenth of the United States' population.

They answered fill-in-the-blank questions about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's possible links to terrorism. And they used a drawing on a class handout to rate their support for a U.S.-led invasion, marking a spectrum to show whether their views fall closer to the olive branch on the far left or to the bundle of arrows on the right.

"We'll keep track of the events you're going to live through that will write the history books for years to come," Nelson told his class at Mount Airy Middle School yesterday morning during a brief detour on the eve of war from their regular American history lessons.

Even as U.S. military forces have been training in the Persian Gulf region and administration officials have worked the last threads of diplomacy, school systems across the region have been drafting plans to ensure that places such as Greg Nelson's crowded classroom are ready for any repercussions that trickle down from the fast-approaching military conflict.

Baltimore-area school officials have updated crisis-response manuals and drilled teachers and students on how to respond to a variety of emergencies. They've distributed handouts with tips to help teachers explain the conflict to students of all ages. And they've canceled field trips, turned off classroom televisions and formed support groups for children whose parents have been deployed for military service.

"As with the sniper situation, as with the 9/11 disaster, our guiding principle is not to minimize these very traumatic and sometimes worldwide events," said Charles A. Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County's public schools. "But by the same token, we want to make sure the school remains a safe place for learning and somewhat a safe haven from all the news that's out there."

In many schools, that involves crafting age-appropriate lessons and remaining even-keeled.

"We are trying, as much as possible, to go about our regular routines," Mount Airy Middle School Principal Virginia Savell said. "If we keep [pupils'] lives as normal as possible, that gives them a sense of stability. If they see us getting crazy, it makes them crazy. If they see us acting calm, they'll be calm."

Maintaining that composure will become difficult, she said, if school officials increase security levels and restrict outdoor activities, as many did during the sniper shootings in the fall. "Then students suspect that we know something they don't, and they worry," Savell said.

In the meantime, area school counselors are suggesting that teachers present information about Iraq in a factual, objective manner without adding opinions or speculating about unknown possibilities. They recommend helping students feel a sense of control by encouraging them to participate in such activities as writing to troops. And if teachers don't know the answer to students' questions -- which becomes increasingly likely when discussions turn to war -- they are encouraged to say so.

With younger children, teachers are encouraged to avoid images that escalate emotions and to provide avenues for them to express their feelings, including painting and drawing.

"You can talk more informationally with an older child," said Barbara Guthrie, the guidance supervisor for Carroll schools. "But when a younger child asks for information, be careful not to give them too much. In some cases, they just need recognition that they're afraid and sometimes they just need someone to say, 'I'm here to protect you.'"

School systems also are working to make sure they can do just that in the event of a counterattack on the United States.

Howard County school administrators have simulated the response to a radioactive bomb explosion in Washington and the county's PTA Council has appointed emergency-preparedness volunteers.

"We have no idea what could happen," said council President Deborah Wessner. "We want to have every mechanism that we possibly can in place."

PTAs have collected nonperishable food, bottled water and several days' dosages of children's medicine to keep at school in case students are stranded there during a crisis.

Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston directed principals recently to avoid showing breaking news to students, to review school safety plans and to send home letters to parents reminding them to help children feel safe.

And Anne Arundel County school officials will send out letters this week detailing the system's "shelter in place" policy, which encourages principals and teachers to identify classrooms, hallways or cafeterias that can be sealed off.

Baltimore City schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said she was "not aware of anything special going on in the schools regarding the war," adding that administrators are "focused on ... testing this week."

Most systems' planning has occurred without attracting the attention of students, who say that little has changed at school and beyond as they have become increasingly interested in the escalating conflict.

Yesterday at Mount Airy Middle, eighth-grader Sara Carl, 13, said she watches the news more frequently and suspects that her mother's insistence that the family regularly attend church has something to do with the imminent military conflict.

Raeanna Simmons, 13, has stopped watching conventional television news programs but found that even MTV dispatched a correspondent to "find out what's going on with the troops and stuff."

And lunchtime for Katia Racine, 13, these days means arguing with friends and defending her seemingly isolated view.

"Nothing has convinced me that there's strong enough evidence that all the loss of life is needed," she said. "We don't need to be killing a lot of innocent people in their country to get one bad guy."

When Raeanna chimed in that "they decided to kill all our innocent people on 9/11, and we have a right to go over there and kill their people," Katia shot back that "the people over there were not involved in 9/11."

Nelson encourages such debate, requiring only that his pupils "remember T.J."

Pointing to a bulletin board devoted to America's founding fathers, he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, "The more information you have, the better off you are in a democracy."

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Tricia Bishop, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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