MAXWELL:  Treat students’ threats seriously

5/6/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Many kids can get a gun quicker than they can get a book, and that puts us all at risk.”

_ Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, discussing recent shootings by schoolchildren

The carnage is spreading. It is becoming more frequent, too. Most recently, on April 24, a 14-year-old boy in Edinboro, Pa., opened fire at an eighth-grade dance. Earlier shootings occurred in Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss.

In these incidents, 11 died and 25 were wounded, including students and teachers.

Americans often die from gunshots in our violent, gun-loving nation. But two things make these recent killings unusual: First, the alleged perpetrators, all schoolchildren, warned schoolmates that they wanted to see blood flow. Second, apparently no one _ including school counselors who should know better _ took the threats seriously.

Thank goodness that Thomas Jones, principal of Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg, has learned that when Little Johnny, or Little Angelica, shows his dark side and threatens schoolmates or staff members, we had better listen closely and take immediate action.

Last Wednesday, as they were about to leave campus at day’s end, students at Southside were sent back to classrooms to get copies of a form letter, written by the principal, to take home to their parents.

In a note, two seventh-graders had threatened their schoolmates.

“What started out as a joke grew into a serious matter very quickly,” Jones wrote. “One of our students wrote a note to a second student expressing an intention to do harm to others at our school.”

How Jones and a school police officer concluded that the threat was intended as a joke is another issue altogether. The issue at hand _ given recent threats and subsequent shootings _ is that threats of any kind at school should be taken seriously by straight-thinking grown-ups responsible for the welfare of our children.

We have enough dead and wounded nationwide to know by now that if we must err at a crossroads, let us err on the side of prevention, which makes the objections of some parents and the ambivalence of Jim Bedinghaus, father of an eighth-grader at Southside, disturbing.

Bedinghaus’ comments were reported in the Times: “I don’t think this should ever be taken lightly. But at the same time, you have to be careful not to overreact. . . . It’s important for them to maintain communication with parents. The principal is doing what he should be doing at this point. I’m not sure what else he could do.”

Again, given what is known, how does a principal, teacher, student, or school police officer “overreact” to a threat to do bodily harm? How should we react when Little Johnny scrawls a note telling classmates that he wants to kill that damned ole Mr. Maxwell, his English teacher, because of an F grade? What about Little Angelica? Word on campus is that she has threatened to “get” Tricia for stealing Sean away.

What should we do?

Little Johnny is a good kid, joking all the time. He’s not going to really kill Mr. Maxwell. And, Little Angelica? Heck, she wouldn’t hurt a flea. Just last week, she brought home three stray kittens. Sure, she threatened to put Tricia’s lights out. But she didn’t really mean it.

Really? How do we know?

What about the folk in Edinboro, Jonesboro, West Paducah and Pearl? They deluded themselves into believing that they knew the children who became cold-blooded killers. Had someone “overreacted” in each case, innocent people, including a pregnant teacher in Jonesboro, would be alive today.

Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley said in a telephone interview that, although the county has no districtwide policy to handle such threats, he takes all threats seriously. He said that he wants all threats officially reported, leaving room for law enforcement and principals to decide on a case-by-case basis what action to take.

Parents should support their principals when such incidents occur, Hinesley said, and he agrees with Jim Bedinghaus that schools and parents should “maintain communication.”

Hinesley and his top lieutenants may be interested in what Broward Schools Superintendent Frank Petruzielo learned during his second annual visit to classrooms to listen to the concerns of students. One of the biggest complaints? Students must wait too long to see guidance counselors. In light of violence elsewhere, Petruzielo said that he will make counselors more accessible.