Date: Fri 07-May-1999
Parents Express Their Worries About School
BY STEVE BIGHAM
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
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
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
"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
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.