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SAFETY-FIRST HABIT REASSURES SWEET HOME AS BOMB ARREST SHOWS THAT 'SYSTEM WORKS'

A tuned-in, no-nonsense approach to school safety helped avert an alleged plan to bomb Sweet Home High School and should give students and staff confidence that they are returning to a secure environment when classes resume next week, district officials, parents and students said Thursday.

"There's a greater story here on the side of prevention and how seriously we take these things," said Dirk Rabenold, president of the Sweet Home Board of Education. "The system we have in place really gives us a lot of comfort, if you will. The system works."

A 15-year-old sophomore was arrested last week and petitioned to Erie County Family Court after a search of his home turned up piping bound with duct tape, ball bearings from in-line skate wheels and fuse material he purchased at a hardware store.

School district officials have been in close and regular contact with police, and provided information that ultimately led to the arrest, said Ron Hagelberger, assistant chief of the Amherst Police Department.

"If they hadn't have come up with the information, who knows what might have happened?" he said.

Elizabeth Hong, president of the All-Class Leadership Council at the high school, said she realized how serious school officials are about safety when they investigated a separate issue raised by a classmate, even though it seemed like a marginal concern and proved to be harmless.

"That really impressed me," said Hong, a senior. "I'm not really frightened, because I feel the school is under control."

Sweet Home Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks has scheduled an open meeting for parents at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the high school, 1901 Sweet Home Road, Amherst.

Nationally, aborted school assaults are not unusual, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm.

"A tragedy like Red Lake Senior High School (where 10 people were fatally shot last month) captures our attention, but the untold story is how many of these plots are thwarted," he said.

Trump said that school officials are more attuned and responsive to signs of trouble and that students are more willing to share their concerns.

"We're teaching students that if they report something, they're not snitching, but might be saving someone's life," he said. "There's no more room for a 'boys will be boys' mentality."

Karen Galli is an administrative assistant at Sweet Home High School, has a daughter who attends the school and is president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association there. She said that "a lot of people are going to be shocked" by the alleged bombing plan but that she is convinced that the school is secure.

"I would not go back into a building and work and bring my 16-year-old daughter if I didn't feel safe," she said.

Marianne Jasen, co-president of the PTA at Sweet Home's Maplemere Elementary School, said that a tip from a student "made the difference" in thwarting the alleged bomb plot and that school officials responded well.

"It's important that the administration continue to keep the lines of communication open," Jasen said. ". . . We want to know when things like this happen. Continue to let us know so we can talk to our children about it."

Suzanne Thomas, principal of Sweet Home High School, said she will meet with faculty and staff before the start of classes Monday morning and will discuss school safety with students at assemblies later in the morning.

"It was because students believe in a culture of trust and understanding that we were able to do what we did," she said.

Hong, the student leader, said the arrest should serve as an example to students who come across anything suspicious.

"If you hear anything, even if it seems kind of dumb, tell someone," she said. "They really do take these things seriously."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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