- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

Police cruisers no longer sit at the front door of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md., the once tightly pulled window blinds have been raised and the news cameras are gone.

Teachers say most of the students have "bounced back" from the terror of a month ago. But life is not the same as it was before the Washington-area sniper shot a student outside the school's front door. And it may never be.

The woods where the shooter crouched and fired Oct. 7 have been cleared of underbrush and other potential cover. Volunteers with blue jackets reading "Security" patrol drop-off areas each morning. Teachers pause to check whether doors are locked securely as they walk the halls. The front door no longer is used.

"People here have been under a lot of stress," said Tasker Principal John Lloyd. "Hopefully, it will die down eventually."

The Tasker shooting struck a deep chord.

All the previous victims were adults, but the wounding of the 13-year-old boy showed nobody was off limits, even the most vulnerable. That point was driven home days later by a letter left at another shooting.

"Your children are not safe anywhere at any time," the letter stated.

Schools in Maryland, Virginia and Washington took drastic steps, locking down buildings, canceling outdoor sports and recess, posting police at school doors. Those "code blue" security measures stayed in place throughout the three-week shooting spree.

Tasker's 1,400 students and teachers suffered throughout, with each successive shooting bringing them back to Oct. 7. Even the arrest of John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, on Oct. 24 was hard for the students to digest.

"When they were caught, none of the kids seemed to believe it," said special education teacher Cece Goodwin.

The 13-year-old student, who has not been identified publicly, returned to his Bowie home this week after five weeks in the hospital, recovering from the .223 bullet that tore up his body. His eighth-grade classmates have made cards that will be delivered to his house today. News of the boy's release prompted congratulatory e-mail messages from all over the world, Mr. Lloyd said.

Immediately after the shooting, the county school system dispatched teams of crisis counselors to Tasker and therapists have worked with students since then.

Students were afraid and confused in the days after Oct. 7, said school psychologist Pamela McCoy Ota, who helps counsel Tasker students. Some were angry about the shootings, others had anxiety about the randomness, wondering whether they could be targeted again.

Much of that anger and anxiety have faded since the suspects were arrested. But Miss Ota said the shooting also may have triggered pre-existing conditions such as depression in some children.

"Kids are very resilient," she said. "Most have recovered now. But there is a small percentage who may need to be looked after."

The shootings also have been hard on parents and teachers.

Mr. Lloyd said it has been difficult to watch his Tasker "family" suffer. His 11-year-old son runs zigzag home from his friend's house to avoid being a target. Miss Goodwin said she feels nervous walking in front of the school building.

Woodrow Cunningham and his wife drove their son, Matthew, to school for the first few weeks after the shooting. The 13-year-old takes the bus now, but the family tries to spend as much time together as possible. They make it a point to eat dinner together on Thursdays, banning television on that night.

It was at one of those dinners that Matthew opened up and talked about how he felt about the shooting.

"We wanted him to bring it up, and he did," Mr. Cunningham said. "He was real affected. He said to us the arrests have eased his mind considerably.

"I feel much better now that these people aren't going to be able to do this again," Matthew said.

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