Date: Fri 07-May-1999

Date: Fri 07-May-1999

Publication: Bee

Author: STEVEB

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Parents Express Their Worries About School

(with photo)


Last month's tragedy in Littleton, Colo., and the fear that it could happen

again brought parents to the high school Wednesday night for a meeting on

school violence.

The assembly room at Newtown High School was packed for the event, which

featured a panel of speakers made up of school administrators and community

counselors. Parents were there to find out what the school is doing to ensure

that Newtown's young people can go to school in a safe environment. Many were

there to find out how they, too, can help make growing up a little bit easier

for kids.

The underlying message of the evening was that there are many lonely teenagers

out there -- many of whom are begging for adult attention. NHS Principal Bill

Manfredonia sees it all the time.

"I have never seen people who are more lonely than the teenagers of today.

They want adult attention. They want to know that we care."

Mr Manfredonia said the April tragedy has captivated a nation that truly loves

its children.

"What happened in Colorado has awakened the country. I think we're all here

tonight because it's time to re-focus on what's most important," he said.

This week's meeting, sponsored by the school's Parent Teacher Student

Association (PTSA), was a chance for school administrators to reassure parents

that there are programs in place to prevent school violence, and to give

parents an opportunity to share their ideas on ways to improve.

Last year, the Board of Education did enact a policy against harassment, which

was designed in an effort to stop the bullying and intimidation that often

goes on in school. However, as Superintendent of School John R. Reed

acknowledged, there is so much more to do. He is calling on the resources of

the entire community, including the Family Counseling Center, Newtown Police

and Newtown Youth Services, to work together to come up with a plan to better

serve the young people of Newtown.

Dr Reed said the school district will begin a remediation program at the

elementary schools which will help students handle conflict situations. The

school system also plans to establish an anger management program for troubled

students, especially for boys, who tend to hide their inner feelings and pain.

The Newtown Police Department plans to set up a safety hotline for any student

or parent who wants to make an anonymous call about trouble signs they have

seen or heard. There are reports out of Littleton that as many as 30 people

may have been aware of what was going to happen.

Newtown officials will also call on US Congressman Jim Maloney to help area

towns receive additional funding for more school security. Currently, NHS has

a security officer, Rich Novia, and a school resource officer, Chris Vanghele.

However, more security is needed at the middle school.

Dr Reed also advocated the use of school buildings for youth-oriented

activities after school. "We're not allowed to teach religion in school, but I

think church activities at the school are appropriate," Dr Reed said.

As for the numerous school shootings that have taken place nationwide over the

past 18 months, Dr Reed said there is an obvious problem. However, he refused

to blame it on any one thing -- not music, not video games, not any single

item. Parents, teachers and the community need to reach out to students to

forestall potential tragedies.

The school system is attempting to strike a balance between making students

aware of potential dangers while at the same time allowing them to lead their

lives, Dr Reed said.

Mr Manfredonia acknowledged that there have been a handful of incidents since

the Littleton shooting.

"Since the incident in Colorado, three students have been brought to our

attention that we are concerned about," Mr Manfredonia said.

One student wrote some strange "stuff" on the Internet.

"I don't take strange stuff for granted anymore," he said. After all, things

that may not have concerned us three weeks ago suddenly have become very

serious. Take, for example, the anonymous caller who phoned the high school

last week to inform school officials that the neighborhood boy was spending a

lot of time in the garage. The story drew a chuckles from the audience, but Mr

Manfredonia was not laughing.

"What would have happened if they were right?" he asked.

Police Chief Jim Lysaght said the key to an information hotline is to create

an attitude where students feel they have the power to help a friend.

Newtown has been a leader in the area of prevention and was one of the first

towns in the area to have a school youth officer.

"Let's stay ahead of the curve," Chief Lysaght urged.

Debbie Richardson of Newtown Youth Services reminded parents that her group

exists to help kids get connected with their schools, their families, their

peers and their communities. Joanne Klopfenstein of Family Counseling Center

was also on hand to encourage parents and students to come forward with their

concerns, fears and problems.

High school guidance counselor Don Elliot reminded parents that NHS does have

a network of counselors who are there to help those students with personal


Parents' Views

Many parents who showed up wanted to know what was going on in the elementary

schools to ensure safety. One mother said her daughter came home and said "it"

will never happen at Head O' Meadow School. The tragedies of Littleton and

Jonesboro, however, show that tragedies do occur in unlikely places.

Another problem, said one parent, is that the definition of "harassment" is

not clear. "There are different philosophies about what is OK and what is not

OK," she said.

In once instance, she said, a student told her classmates to stand up if they

didn't like "Johnny." All the students stood up and the teacher did nothing,

she said. That is harassment, she said, and is the kind of painful act that

many believe creates anger inside a young person's mind.

Dr Reed admitted he did not have all the answers.

"I'm not here to make excuses. We need your help. If you feel we're missing

the boat -- tell us," he said.

Mr Manfredonia talked about the different groups that currently exist at the

high school. There are those with pierced tongues and those with dyed hair.

There are also those who wear trench coats, but he urged adults to accept kids

for who they are -- free spirits who are at a time in their life when they can

experiment with odd-looking clothes and purple hair.

"Let's not judge them for the color of their hair or because there is a crowd

of them at Dunkin' Donuts," he said.