Act of valor may help Georgia town to heal

During last month's school shootings in Littleton, Colo., students at Heritage High School - 1,200 miles away in Conyers, Ga. - watched events unfold live on TV monitors in class. Their teachers discussed how to avoid copycat incidents.

"They told us to 'talk to counselors if you think any one of you would come close to doing that,' " says Heritage ninth-grader Henry Mitchell.

In what was far more than an ounce of prevention, Heritage officials would seem to have done everything right. They had a security plan, installed surveillance cameras, and hired a police officer to patrol the halls.

But the gunfire that shattered the morning routine last Thursday showed how school precautions cannot always protect from an armed, distraught teen. Now a Heritage sophomore awaits arraignment as an adult for shooting six classmates, and a town that thought such an event could never happen here is looking for answers to why it did and - as urgently - how to get back to normal.

In that regard, school is expected to reopen today at Heritage High. Students will pick up their yearbooks and decide whether to take exams as scheduled or accept current term grades and opt out of the last week of school.

But as residents puzzle over last week's events, those looking for a formula to prevent future school shootings won't find easy answers here.

"If I could ask [the suspect] one question, it would be, 'Why?'" says 10th-grader Angela Sandy. "He was a quiet, nice guy. His family and my family were friends. I watched him load his gun and then saw him point it at me. If the assistant principal hadn't distracted him, I still don't know if he would have fired."

The courage of Assistant Principal Cecil Brinkley may be the starting place for healing in this upscale community, where at least 80 churches outnumber any other type of establishment. Mr. Brinkley had walked toward a pointed gun as he urged the shooter to disarm - and then embraced him. The grandfather of six was four months from retirement.

"His act could be how we all move forward," says the Rev. Nat Harrison Rev. Long, senior minister of the First United Methodist Church here. "I just finished preaching a series of sermons on The Prodigal Son - that embrace is like what the father did when the son returned."

Ready to help

School and church leaders worked closely through last week's crisis in organizing meetings for students and their families. About 700 people attended a community meeting with counselors and school officials.

"We're just trying to create as normal an atmosphere as we can," said school department spokesman Susan Paul Smith, as students and their families returned to pick up book bags and belongings at the crime scene on Saturday.

Students held hands or clustered quietly in the sun-drenched common area, where days earlier some had seen classmates shot. Volunteers wearing "mental health professional" badges assured parents that "the kids are doing fine." And the town sheriff left early to watch his son pitch in a Little League game.

The arrival of summer will end opportunity for more Littletons and Conyerses - at least for this school year. In a surge of copycat crimes, more than 350 students have been arrested nationwide in the past month in an "unprecedented wave of bomb scares and threats of violence against schools," according to a survey to be published this week in Education Week.

But summertime won't solve the problem, says Peter Scales, senior fellow at Search Institute, a nonprofit group based in Minneapolis that consults with communities on how to improve the climate for youth.

"Communities must find ways to consistently and persistently invite kids into the mainstream of responsibility," says Mr. Scales. "And schools need to become small places where young people themselves can treat each other with respect."

In the wake of the Conyers shootings, Georgia officials signaled a move in this direction. On Friday, Georgia State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko said she would ask for legislation to go back to smaller-size schools. (She's also requesting authorization for principals to carry Mace, pepper spray, or a stun instrument, as well as to put metal detectors in every Georgia school.)

"We're learning that we can't lay safety on top of a school. Everyone has to be involved in this issue," says Joanne McDaniel, research director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, based in Raleigh, N.C.

Meanwhile, the initial crush of national and international news media stunned residents here and helped knock out cell-phone service east of Atlanta on Thursday.

"By early morning, reporters and film crews had infested the area like a demonized horde of locusts," reported The Rockdale Citizen, a local daily.

In fact, the crush of media attention was not as severe as that following the Littleton shootings, in which 15 students were killed. Some news crews canceled hotel reservations in Conyers or began pulling out soon after it was clear there would be no deaths here.

An unassuming suspect

As for the 15-year-old suspect, school officials say he was not a discipline problem. Neighbors say he kept to himself and always sat in the back of the bus. Some speculate that he spent lots of time on the Internet and was shaken by a recent split with a girlfriend. No one recalls seeing him use the basketball hoop at the edge of his family's stately brick home in one of Conyers's newer subdivisions.

"People who live here get up and go to work, then come home and watch videos," says a neighbor, Allan Morgan. "Kids don't hang out on the cul-de-sac, and we don't know our neighbors. The kids really only socialize in school."

It's the schools that have been the biggest draw for selling lots in the new subdivisions. Population in Rockdale County is expected to double by 2010, as Atlanta sprawls further east.

Until last week's shooting, the town of Conyers was best known for its world-class horse park, a Trappist monastery, and a religious shrine that used to draw more than 100,000 pilgrims on the 13th of every month.

You can still see signs of a small, rural Georgia town in Olde Town Conyers or in the small farms with propane tanks on the front lawn. Newcomers are moving into custom-builts that cost as much as $700,000, with putting-class lawns and signs warning that the property enjoys "24-hour direct police protection."

But many say it's harder to get to know people in town than it used to be.

"There is a very high degree of competition in our community - in athletics, in academics, and in economic matters," says the Rev. Mr. Long. "We are living at such a fast pace that people don't tend to want to sit down and visit."

For student Angela Sandy, school violence has changed her approach to life. "I didn't used to talk much with my parents," she says. Now, I tell them I love them every time I leave the house."

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