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Massacre puts focus on local security School officials note precautions have limits, but agree on need to be alert to telltale signs

The specter of Columbine has hung over local school districts for eight years, and frequently has been cited as the reason for many security measures now in place.

Now there is a new place and new words for unimaginable school violence: Virginia Tech.

The massacre there this week has prompted local school officials to dust off their security procedures, accelerate efforts to encourage positive behavior and thwart bullying, and to identify troubled students before their problems multiply.

All the while, they recognize that they can never feel completely secure.

"We can do as much as we possibly can," said Barbara Wentworth, president of Nardin Academy. "But if anyone is determined to do something awful, they'll find a way to do it."

Friday was a particularly sensitive day in area schools. The emotional fallout of Virginia Tech remained intense, it was the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, and April 20 has to some students also become an unofficial "Marijuana Day."

Police presence has been stronger than usual this week at many high schools, including Cheektowaga's John F. Kennedy High School. Police dogs Friday sniffed out all the student lockers at JFK and -- to the relief of schools officials -- detected no evidence of drugs.

At Nardin, an independent Catholic school in Buffalo, students and staff were reminded after Virginia Tech not to prop open doors and not to let anyone in the school, even if they know them. Instead, visitors are to enter through the front door, which is manned by security personnel, and to be escorted to their destination.

The Nardin community also reviewed three color-coded security levels: one a lock-down, one a directive for students and staff to stay where they are until further notice, and the third an order to evacuate.

Since Columbine, schools have restricted access to buildings, installed video cameras and buzzer systems, encouraged students to tell them about potential trouble, beefed up security and worked out detailed emergency procedures with police and emergency response squads.

In addition, school officials are more vigilant about bullying and are stepping up efforts to teach children to get along with each other and act respectfully in the early grades, said Kenneth N. Condrell, a Williamsville child psychologist. "This would be a good opportunity to focus students again on those things," he said. "You can never say that too many times to kids."

But beyond those measures, school officials fear that repeated incidents of school violence will diminish the sense of horror they evoke and prompt young students to see them as routine occurrences. If that happens, they said, it could lead to more incidents or threats.

"You get a bit concerned about kids becoming numb to this," said James P. Mazgajewski, superintendent of the Cheektowaga-Sloan School district. "This wasn't the first time and -- let's face it -- it won't be the last time. I'm concerned if kids are just saying: 'Here we go again.' "

A West Seneca East High girl, 17, was charged with a felony this week after an e-mail bomb threat to the school.

In Lancaster, a 14-year-old boy was arrested after other students said he made threats.

And in Buffalo, school officials this week beefed up security and canceled after-school activities at at least two high schools, reportedly because of fears of gang-related violence. Buffalo school administrators failed to return phone calls for information and comment.

But Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said teachers report that growing numbers of students are showing signs of emotional difficulties at young ages.

"What I'm hearing from teachers is that they're just taken aback with the kind of problems showing up in the very early grades, like prekindergarten and kindergarten. It's the kind of language that's used and the sexual type of thing, when a young student makes sexual innuendos to another," he said.

Rumore urged the district to rehire social workers, guidance counselors and attendance teachers laid off during five years of budget cuts.

"The sooner we can reach these students and their families, the better chance we have to help them," he said. "It's absolutely critical that we do that. That's not rocket science."

Condrell, the author of a recent book called "The Unhappy Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know," said parents are sensitive to their children's physical health, but often miss signs of emotional distress.

"Kids without friends, kids who are bullies, kids who are loners, kids who are very mean are kids who are not growing up well," he said. "These are children you surely want to get help for."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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