- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

Local school security officials say the recent string of child abductions nationwide should remind parents to discuss safety with their children and advise them not to talk to strangers.

"Schools have a lot of safety programs in place already. But these events can serve as a good reminder to parents about talking to children about safety, strangers and being alone," said Fred Ellis, security chief for Fairfax County public schools.

All area schools require visitors to report to the main office as soon as they enter the building. Some, such as Arlington, require visitors to identify themselves over an intercom at the front door.

"All staff in our schools are encouraged to stop visitors and ask if they can help them. Anyone without an ID badge is immediately reported," Mr. Ellis said.

Schools in the District and Prince George's County have extensive camera networks monitoring the movements of people as they enter, exit and move through the buildings.

The District has walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines installed in every middle and high school. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have tip lines that students can call to leave information about suspicious activity.

"We have a very good safety system in place," said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County public schools. "Children are only released to parents, and we have people looking after the children all day."

Mr. Ellis said safety issues are regularly discussed in the school system's newsletter, the Familygram. As part of a safety program, students meet police officers who talk to them about "stranger safety" and school bus safety.

However, the walk to and from school can be dangerous. Child-safety experts say most abductions happen within a quarter-mile to a half-mile of the child's home.

"Because school is where children are, that is where most people who want to victimize children go," said Peter Banks, director of training and outreach for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Mr. Banks said that because many children are abducted by noncustodial parents, schools must be careful about to whom they release a child. Children should get their teachers' permission before accepting a ride even from a neighbor, he said.

He also stressed the need for children to walk to school and wait for school buses in groups, something local school officials say they already encourage.

In the District, many children walk to schools every day because the school system does not bus students other than those in special education. In Prince George's County, parents have protested the school system's inability to provide buses on some routes, forcing elementary school children to walk more than a mile to school.

Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for school and support services in the District, said there have been no discussions of implementing additional safety measures in schools this year because of child abductions.

Pat Fiel, the system's chief of security, did not return calls.

In May, Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old from Milwaukee, disappeared while on her way to school. The school is visible from her family's front porch.

Though statistics show that child abductions are decreasing in frequency, a spate of abductions around the country has been widely publicized this year.

•In February, Danielle van Dam, 7, was kidnapped from her suburban San Diego home and found slain.

•In March, classmates Miranda Diane Gaddis, 13, and Ashley Pond, 13, vanished from their apartment complex in Oregon City, Ore.

•In June, Elizabeth Smart, 14, was abducted at gunpoint from her Salt Lake City home while her parents and siblings slept.

•Last month, 7-year-old Erica Pratt of Philadelphia was abducted. She escaped her captors by chewing through duct tape and breaking a window to call for help.

•Last week, Jennifer Short, 9, apparently was abducted from her home in Collinsville, Va. Her mother and father were found fatally shot in the house.

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