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How safe are our schools?
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Newton High School student Sarah Lanners thought the ceiling of the school was crumbling on the morning of Jan. 16.

"Right before the first bell we just started hearing a loud, almost roaring noise," Lanners said.

Other students in her class wondered if the thunderous noise was a skirmish of some sort between several students or possibly even gunfire.

Because the incident happened before school started, Lanners' homeroom teacher was not in the classroom. She said she felt a bit scared, so she stayed in the classroom like she practiced in the many emergency lockdown drills held year after year.

The noise turned out only to be firecrackers lit in the boys bathroom near the commons area at the school's entrance.

 "I think the administrators handled it quite well because they didn't leave us hanging," Lanners said. "Mr. Gheesling came on the intercom right after it happened and told us it was firecrackers and said they were offering a reward."

Despite the offer of a $200 reward for naming the culprit, no student has stepped forward to supply the prankster's name.

On the surface, the incident seems like a harmless senior prank, but in a post-Columbine world, hearing loud popping sounds automatically cause students' minds to wander to the macabre.

Lanners said she had two friends who arrived late to school and were pulling into the parking lot when the incident occurred. Both told her it was a scene of chaos as students ran out of the building and swarmed their cars.

Principal Joe Gheesling said order was restored in a timely manner.

"I think the staff did a very good job handling this situation," Gheesling said. "We had the school back to normal very quickly and in fact, hosted the scheduled Middle School Recitation Contest without any disruption to the schedule."

Gheesling said students often practice lockdowns and other emergency drills.

"We do have procedures in place for several types of possible incidents, including intruders, bomb treats and many, many more," Gheesling said. "We review our procedures at the beginning of each school year and practice these procedures throughout the remainder of the year.

He added staff members monitor locations throughout the school, including where the firecrackers were lit, before and after school and between classes.

Cathy Dobbs, member of the Newton County Board of Education and parent of a teenager, said it is sad these procedures and monitors are necessary.

"I really feel like that if kids know there's a weapon, they're really scared and they will come forward," Dobbs said. "The student body is our best defense against violence."

She said students must take responsibility for and be diligent in assuring the safety of the schools they attend, just as much as her fellow board members and school principals do.

Dobbs estimated only 250 of the more than 19,000 Newton County students, or roughly 1 percent, disrupt classrooms or exhibit violent behavior at school. She said parents should talk to their children about how to react to this kind of behavior.

"Encourage your kids to take responsibility and if they see something not right or that is going to harm someone, they have to tell somebody," Dobbs said. "That's what being a good citizen is about and parents have to teach their children that."

She added she felt confident about Newton High administrators' abilities, and all other county administrators' abilities, to maintain a safe school environment conducive to learning.

Lanners agreed with Dobbs that many students and parents overreacted to the situation but were glad to know staff members responded quickly and appropriately.

"I feel like it's a very safe school," Lanners said. "Any situation could happen at any school, and I feel like Newton is just as safe as any other school."