Originally created 04/21/00

Schools see low turnout



LANGLEY -- Nearly half the freshman class at Midland Valley High stayed home Thursday, the day two classmates had allegedly planned to blow up the school.

But Thursday was one of the safest possible days to be at the school, where security was tight after days of rumors there would be violence on the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

At least 300 were absent -- 42 percent were freshmen, classmates of the two boys arrested Monday for an alleged bombing plot. Attendance also was low at Aiken and North Augusta high schools, where both reported a 17 percent absentee rate among their ninth-graders.

The rate also was low at some schools outside Aiken County. In Richmond County, Tutt Middle School had an unusual drop in enrollment, with 100 pupils out Thursday, compared to a normal amount of about 30, Deputy Superintendent Gene Sullivan said.

"Yesterday, parents started calling about hearing rumors about someone bringing a bomb to school, but nothing was substantiated," Mr. Sullivan said.

Attendance was at 89 percent in all Richmond County Schools, which is 5 percent lower than last month.

In Aiken County, Steve Cartin respected his son's request to stay home from Midland Valley. His family lived in Eugene, Ore. in 1998 -- the year Kip Kinkel shot his parents to death and the next day opened fire on classmates in Springfield, murdering two and injuring 25.

The Rev. Cartin's son knew one of the wounded girls.

"He knows the reality of situations like this," the Rev. Cartin said. "The memories of just two years ago still are fresh for him. He didn't want to go to school, and I respect that."

Jonathan Deal and his sister, Laura McKee, stayed home, too. Not because they wanted to, but because their parents demanded it.

"There's no avoiding stuff like this," Jonathan, a junior, said. "You can't just stay out of school every day. I didn't think anything would happen. If they really wanted to hurt people, they wouldn't do it when everyone expected it."

Thursday's date, the one-year anniversary of the slayings at the Littleton, Colo., school, had some parents worried about copycats, afraid that the same thing could have happened here.

That concern settled in when news crews swarmed the tiny textile town for days, a stark reminder that havoc can happen even in the quaintest places.

Two freshman, Robert Turner and Jaris Simon are charged with threatening to bomb their school, a felony, and disturbing school, a misdemeanor. They have been at the state juvenile detention center since their arrests Monday. A judge decided Wednesday not to release the teens to the custody of their parents.

Aiken County sheriff's deputies continue to question other students about the alleged plot, but so far, no one has been arrested.

As high schoolers pulled their pickups and hot rods onto the main highway Thursday, they made sure local media knew they no longer were welcome. Many made their frustrations known verbally. Others flashed their middle fingers.

"We're all just tired of the media attention," said Josh Waters, a senior. "It's nice to be recognized, but not for this."

He also criticized The Augusta Chronicle for Thursday's editorial cartoon, which linked Midland Valley to the Columbine anniversary. He called it distasteful -- a sentiment widely echoed in the community that had just faced the threat of potential violence.

"The situation is nothing to joke about," Mr. Waters said. "Many people were truly scared, and the cartoon made fun of that fear."

At Midland Valley, the fear gave way to caution Thursday, as bomb-detecting dogs sniffed the school and its grounds.

Specially trained dogs also were kept busy Thursday morning in Richmond County after several bomb threats.

Sgt. John Gray of the sheriff's department said the first threat at T.W. Josey High School came after a young boy called to say, "I'm tired of it. You better get somebody over to Josey and get everybody out within an hour or else the school will blow up."

Investigators traced the call to a pay phone at Lee's Grocery on Old Savannah Road, but they have no suspects.

While dogs sniffed the grounds at Josey, a second threat was received at Hephzibah High School. A search there yielded the same results.

Richmond County Superintendent Charles Larke blames the threats on the media attention given to Columbine.

"Sometimes the media has to look at what it focuses on," he said."Kids will keep doing this because they want attention."

In Columbia County schools, overall attendance was normal.

"We may have a few more out than normal but not any wholesale exodus today," said Evans High School Principal Robert Waller.

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office positioned deputies at the schools in the morning and throughout the day.

"The best thing we can have today -- not just here in Columbia County but everywhere -- is an incident-free day," Dr. Waller said at about noon Thursday. "I think every time you can do this and put another one of these anniversaries behind you, it's better for all of us."

Staff Writers Katie Throne, Faith Johnson and Mark Mathis contributed to this article.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.