No school immune to violence, panel warns

Friday, October 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE -- Schools are a reflection of society and the violence showing up in classrooms is ominous, a panel discussing school and workplace violence said Thursday.

"Unfortunately, there are principals that still believe it won't happen in their building," said Steve Sorrell, Campbell County High School principal.

Mr. Sorrell was assistant principal at Ryle High School when student Clay Shrout took his math class hostage in 1994 after killing his family. Mr. Sorrell talked Clay into giving up his gun.

School or corporate leaders who carry "It-won't-happen-on-my-watch" attitudes are in for a wake-up call, said Tom Preston, a crisis management specialist and owner of Preston Global in Versailles, Ky.

"Statistically, they may be right, but when they're wrong, it will be a career-defining moment," he said.

Planning for crisis

On Thursday, Mr. Preston, Mr. Sorrell and four others spoke to reporters about covering such stories. Sponsored by the Kentucky Press Association, the panel included Bill Bartlesman, a reporter at the Paducah Sun who covered the Heath High School shooting; Mike Scogin, publisher of the Georgetown News-Graphic, who handled reports last year of a student bringing a gun to school; Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association; and Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the press association.

"School safety is not news in this state, but school violence is," Mr. Hughes said. "If a school has a violent situation, frequently the school leaders couldn't care less about a reporter's job. Their job is to protect the students. But I do think it's important that schools have a communication component to their crisis plans and that they practice that communication element so they know how they're going to get the information out."

When Clay Shrout took his class hostage, Boone County

Schools had a plan in place. A spokesman was designated, a media area was created and parents were met with immediately, Mr. Sorrell said.

The plan was important, Mr. Sorrell said, because he was in a state of shock right after the incident.

Four years have given him a chance to evaluate how the school handled the situation. What angers Mr. Sorrell now are the lasting effects he, the 23 students who were taken hostage and the classroom teacher have to live with.

"The teacher is still in counseling. The 23 students in that class have been tracked, and 22 went to college and one is in the military. But 24 people were forgotten about," Mr. Sorrell said. "I find myself now getting counseling on rage when I think about that." Last spring, two Georgetown middle school students got into a confrontation at school. One set the other's backpack on fire and racial slurs were used. One student was expelled, Mr. Scogin said.

When the expelled student was seen walking near campus, a teacher reported it to police. Rumors started to fly. The school immediately initiated a lockdown, and the student was found and arrested.

Community still coping

Problems arose when school officials denied there was an issue at school. The Georgetown newspaper found out about the case through parents who were concerned for their children's safety.

After a conversation between Mr. Scogin and school officials, the school is working on a plan for dealing with the media in such situations.

West Paducah is also still coping with the aftermath of the shootings at Heath High School, where Michael Carneal killed three students. "A shooting like this is unlike any shooting you'll ever cover," Mr. Bartlesman said. He spent the morning of Dec. 1 at the Western Baptist Hospital, where victims were taken.

"I knew by the comments the kids were making that they didn't realize the gravity of this case. I didn't realize it. We are reporters, but we are also citizens of the community and human beings," Mr. Bartlesman said. "The victim was the entire community."

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