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    Educators, students, parents cope

    The national tragedy largely prompts fear and tears in area schools, which plan to remain open today.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 12, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Erin Anderson, left, and Rachel Potter of Seminole High pray at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church for victims of Tuesday's terrorist attacks.
    As she wandered campus Tuesday morning to check on her staff and students, Dunedin High School principal Mildred Reed found three girls sitting in a circle on the floor. They were crying, with a box of tissues between them.

    Reed adjusted her dress and sat with them as one student explained how her father had a meeting scheduled in the World Trade Center that morning.

    "My godbrother may be at the Pentagon," Reed said, consoling the girl as they hugged.

    Schools around Tampa Bay tried desperately to make Tuesday as normal as possible, with Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus school boards holding their regular meetings. But the chilling events that unfolded on live television through the day made any degree of normalcy impossible.

    In Pinellas, flags flew at half-staff. Schools in Pasco, Hillsborough, Citrus and Hernando canceled all after-school events. Some schools, including Schwarzkopf Elementary School in Tampa, posted extra security. Phone lines lit up, with parents wondering whether schools were going to close.

    In some classrooms, teachers tried to follow their lesson plans but ended up watching the nonstop coverage with their students instead.

    "The kids were so dumbfounded by what was going on," said Tim Newman, a history and current events teacher at Pasco's River Ridge Middle/High School. "I told them that they were watching history, that this was their (space shuttle) Challenger."

    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Elizabeth Youngblood takes son Taylor home early from Gorrie Elementary in Tampa. "I figured with everything going on, it was probably a smart idea," she said.
    Teachers were dazed. Secretaries cried watching the news. Principals provided frequent, schoolwide updates on the intercom. Some students verged on angry.

    "It's just scary," said Katie Kohlier, a 15-year-old sophomore at Largo High. "I always thought there would be peace in the world I'm living in, but obviously, there's not."

    While no schools closed or officially dismissed students early, parents crowded campuses to pick up their children. Officials estimate hundreds of students left school early around Tampa Bay. For most, it wasn't because they truly feared school would be unsafe -- it was because they thought the family should be together.

    Parent Joseph Alicea of New Port Richey picked up his daughter Elizabeth, 8, from Calusa Elementary School and was headed to Chasco Middle School to get his oldest daughter, Chelsea. His brother-in-law worked at the World Trade Center.

    "We haven't been able to make any contact with anybody in New York," he said. "Just in case, we want to be together if we get bad news."

    Tampa mother Vikki Miller, 41, was furious that businesses, malls and universities were shutting down, but Hillsborough schools were not. All public schools in the Tampa Bay area plan to be open today, but Miller says she will keep her kids home.

    "When I called the School Board, they said my kids were safer in school," said Miller, the mother of four. "I just don't understand. They let out the college people. My children are just as important to me as Bush, those federal people and those college people."

    Vivian Neumann, principal at Pinellas Park Elementary School, pulled teachers aside to tell them what had happened. Later, guidance counselor Nichole Fisher and a psychologist visited every classroom to reassure students they were safe.

    Older children, in fourth and fifth grade, watched television news and wrote papers about their feelings. Younger students talked about what happened but were shielded from the news coverage.

    Fisher urged parents to be honest with their children and admit when answers to difficult questions -- such as "Why?" -- are elusive. She reminded families that counseling is available at most schools.

    Explaining the gravity of the day's events was tough with some older students, said Lecanto High School social studies teacher William Hartley. When one teacher started crying, some students laughed.

    "Some kids are having a hard time getting it to register," he said. "They've seen it on TV, and they've seen it on video games."

    Yet other students had strong emotional reactions to what they were watching on television. "I've tried to impress upon them that the country that they will live in after today is going to be different than the world was today when they came to school," he said.

    - Times staff writers Melanie Ave, Barbara Behrendt, Julie Church, Richard Danielson, Brady Dennis, Robert Farley, Kent Fischer, Bryan Gilmer, Robert King, Logan Mabe, Mike Readling, Chase Squires, Eric Stirgus, Leon Tucker and Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

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