Shootings Add Edge To High School Atmosphere

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Dead Day was canceled today at Payson High School to focus on the living.

Plans to demonstrate the deadly consequences of drunk driving by staging mock student deaths every 15 minutes and allowing firefighters and paramedics to cart the "victims" out of the school's classrooms suddenly seemed inappropriate.

Organizers worried the day-long dramatization, which was meant to be a graphic warning about drinking and driving for students poised to go to prom next week, would only serve as a grim and twisted reminder of the teacher and 12 students who were gunned down and killed by two juniors Tuesday at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The senseless nature of the Colorado killings, which have no clear motive, has parents, students and teachers here and around the country wondering if their schools are safe.

In Payson, the killings, which sparked a rash of menacing postings on the Internet this week, scared at least one mother into keeping her children home from school Wednesday, Payson School Resource Officer David Blalock said.

Most students, however, went to class as usual, but started the day off with a school-wide moment of silence in honor of the students in Littleton.

Blalock detained and spoke with a few high school students, who were overheard making glib comments about the shootings, such as "We can do better than that (number of killings) here."

"(That student) said he made the comment in passing without really thinking about the ramifications," Blalock said. "I talked with him and his mother, and she wasn't too happy with him.

"But you almost have to take everything at face value anymore, because how can you know when talk is just talk or it's leading to something else? You can't. The only person that knows for sure is the person himself."

The Payson Unified School Board held a special meeting Wednesday night to discuss campus safety.

Although school officials for larger districts are talking about stationing metal detectors and armed guards on their campuses, Payson school officials said they subscribe to the low-tech methods of student involvement, support and discipline.

"I don't know how you can prevent that kind of thing unless you turn your school into a prison," Payson High School Vice Principal Barry Smith said. "The best thing we can do is what we're already doing -- teaching our students to respect each other. We've got to be willing to talk to the kids. I think the best thing we can do is be open and caring."

Payson school officials implemented a district-wide emergency plan several years ago that spells out the specific steps that should be taken during an emergency, School Superintendent Russ Kinzer said.

One of those steps involves a school lock-down, in which every classroom on campus is locked, he said. The high school and the middle school practice lock-down drills at least twice a year.

But it takes constant work and attention throughout the year to keep school campuses safe, PHS Principal Phil Gille said.

At Payson High, a school of about 900 students, teachers and administrators watch how students dress and behave, he said, and punishment for breaking the rules is clear and swift.

Students are not allowed to wear gang-related clothing, which would include trench coats if they became affiliated with a group such as the Trench Coat Mafia, the small clique of outcasts that counted the two Littleton gunmen as members. The Trench Coat Mafia at Columbine High boasted of owning guns, wore black clothing, trench coats and fatigues, and disliked football players, Hispanics and Blacks.

Gille said that most importantly, Payson High provides students with a lot of people willing to listen to them. Peer counselors host a variety of groups on topics ranging from friendships to family problems, he said, and the school's counselors always have their doors open.

"The kids who are least likely to do this are the kids who feel successful and part of the school," Gille said. "I don't think we can underestimate how important that is -- to find ways to make students feel like they're part of the school."

Students at Payson High said Wednesday that they generally felt safe on campus, but they didn't think any school could be completely safe.

"It's really creepy that somebody could do that to somebody else," senior Tiffany Douglas said. "There are a lot of people in this school who are mentally frustrated. I guess anyone could snap at any time."

Payson High is a mix of cliques, just like any other school, senior Lindy Hageman said.

"We have preppies, jocks, skaters, Goths," she said, "but our school is pretty closely knit. There are cliques, but everyone is pretty much friends with everyone.

"I think one thing you can do (to make the campus safer) is if you see someone standing alone, reach out to them. It's not that hard to say 'hi' to someone on the sidewalk. I met this Goth girl who looked kind of scary, but she was one of the nicest people I've ever met. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and take a chance."

Officer Blalock said he's concerned about some students at PHS, but not because they're members of any specific group.

"I don't think any one group concerns me more than another," he said. "It's mainly a lot of kids dealing with issues at home.

"People have got to start realizing that they need to do their jobs at home. There are way too many parents not doing their jobs. They expect the schools to fix them, but we can't.

"We deal with everything that Phoenix does -- families being ripped apart, drugs, violence in the homes, students threatening teachers -- but on a smaller scale."

Although guidance counselor Dean Pederson said he thinks PHS has one of the healthiest campuses in the state, he said the killings in Littleton snapped him out of his complacency.

"As an educator, it made me question whether we're doing everything we need to be doing. It's made me more aware that we need to be open and talk to the kids and make sure they have some way to express themselves.

"I think we're ahead of a lot of places because we have a caring campus and supportive staff. Teachers call me all the time and say 'Hey, could you check on this kid? He seems kind of blue.'

"We follow up on those kinds of things, not because we think they're going to do something like this, but because we want the kids to know that we care."

Although Payson is still small enough to fortify its students rather than its institutional walls, that may soon change, Pederson said.

"I think we're about to turn the corner," he said. "I think once we have more than 1,000 students, there are going to be loopholes. Our class loads are already pretty high. Once you get 30 kids to a classroom, with five classes a day, that's a lot of kids for a teacher to know personally."

Payson's growing student population also worries Officer Blalock, who is the school district's first line of defense against trouble.

"For the most part, I think the school are safe places, but when something like this happens it makes you wonder. I'm really starting to see Payson change. I went to high school here and it wasn't anything like this.

"I think for the most part, the kids are really good people, but there's always that one kid who can destroy everyone's lives forever."

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