Another shooting, sharper questions

School shooting in suburban Atlanta yesterday has Americans rethinking

It should be the time of year when children collect signatures in their yearbooks, begin making money mowing lawns, and start thinking about their summer vacation.

Instead, yet another school shooting yesterday - this one in Conyers, Ga., in the heart of the Bible belt - has the nation reexamining everything from the ethos of the suburbs, to parental discipline, to the place of guns in society.

Indeed, even as investigators in the suburban Atlanta county were interviewing the student suspect in the case, lawmakers in Washington stood in the well of the Senate debating - once again - what kinds of controls they should put on guns.

Yesterday's jarring incident came the same day President Clinton flew to Littleton, Colo., the scene of America's worst school shooting, which happened exactly one month ago.

In Conyers, six students were injured - none fatally - when the lone gunman opened fire as school was about to begin at Heritage High. A quick response by police and an assistant principal is being credited with helping contain the violence.

Unlike the Littleton case, the student in custody in Conyers was not considered to be part of any clique or antisocial group. This is adding to the questioning nationwide about what is behind the latest shootings and rash of bomb threats.

"We are all confused about it," says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Hunter, in fact, compares the recent school incidents to the 1960s, when airports were beset by hijackings and bomb threats. This resulted in metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and profiling of potential hijackers - which some think will now become more common in schools.

The Conyers shooting, coming after Littleton, is also putting renewed focus on America's suburbs - for decades the symbol of safety, Georgia shooting puts new focus on suburban schools

security, and normalcy. Indeed, urban schools districts have always been the poster child for poor academic performance and violence - chronicled in movies, books, and the media. The assumption has always been that suburban schools like Columbine in Littleton and Heritage in Conyers - which produce high test scores and graduation rates - are the model of the best way to educate children.

That assumption is now under stiff attack. Suddenly, a number of educators are coming forward to express concern about an environment that seems to be producing a disproportionate number of alienated, angry teenagers. Some are wondering if there's too much focus on academics in such schools, and too little focus on the kids as human beings. Others are questioning a system that may leave too many young people in a vacuum, cut off from both parents and other members of the community.

"The great story of the American high school in the last 30 years has been the dramatic retreat of adult authority," says William Moloney, Colorado commissioner of education. "Too often, high schools resemble college campuses, where students come and go at odd times, ... and where the social strata breaks down into competitive cliques, including the dangerously alienated."

Such criticisms may be particularly applicable to suburban settings, where children can pick up strong messages from adults about the need to succeed academically, but may not get the emotional backing needed to achieve a broader sense of themselves.

"The pressures that kids are under in suburban schools needs to be reexamined," says Bob Shillito, principal of Pelham Memorial High School, a school serving an affluent suburb just north of New York City. The growing obsession with test scores and entrance to the "right" college over the past decade, he says, has put too much pressure on many students - especially those in economically comfortable suburbs - and left many with confused notions about success and their own worth.

A hunger for adult contact

Even as kids face such confusion, says Alice Grant, who's been teaching at Pelham for almost 30 years, parents are less and less available. In recent years, Mrs. Grant says, her suburban students increasingly are expressing an almost desperate hunger for adult conversation and attention. "They're sending us a message," she says. "They're not getting enough from their parents."

Nor are they getting enough contact with other members of the adult community, suggests Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Dr. Botstein has recently drawn much media attention for his proposals to abolish the American high school. But in addition to the inadequacies he notes in high schools, he calls the typical American suburb a lonely place to raise a child.

Lacking the roots of a rural area or the communal spaces of a city, the suburban setting is "a deeply isolating and alienating environment," Botstein says. Too many kids today are being raised without a sense of community or an understanding of their relationship to others, and yet at the same time, he adds, are "fixated on material things."

The Conyers incident raises anew questions about how educators can identify troubled kids. Classmates describe the suspect in the Heritage shooting as an average student not prone to fighting. He didn't hang out with any particular clique, but neither is he a loner. He is a Boy Scout who recently gave a presentation at a local church. Despite the seemingly normal tableau, some classmates say they weren't surprised that the teenager allegedly opened fire on his fellow students.

Poll of US teenagers

Their lack of surprise, in fact, mirrors the feelings of teens nationwide. A new Gallup poll shows that 46 percent of suburban teenagers say they could see a fellow student turning violent. Significantly, only 29 percent in city schools said the same thing.

School security consultants are quick to fault educators for not coming up with better safety programs.

"Tighter security does not just mean metal detectors and armed personnel in the building," says Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. "It's also how to deal with bomb threats or control access to your building."

More than 3,000 schools have a partnership with local police, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.

* Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this article.

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