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Schools walking fine line

War creates new worries; Leavitt reassures students

The war in Iraq has created a struggle on a different front line: schools.

Teachers and principals are faced with balancing information with students' maturity level, possibly their own feelings on war with schools' mission to promote patriotism, and the rights of students who may want to protest war with respect for students whose military parents or relatives have been deployed.

"It's an incredibly delicate balancing act," state curriculum director Vicky Dahn said. "Not talking to kids is not the solution. And yet exactly as teachers, how are we supposed to talk to kids without increasing terror in them?"

Even before President Bush announced the war's beginning Wednesday night, schools walked an information tightrope — perhaps more than ever.

"More of our children are impacted, if not through parents, but nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, than ever before . . . simply because of sheer numbers" of military deployments, Dahn said.

Some 4,000 Utah residents have been deployed, including teachers, coaches, friends and relatives of Utah children.

Hill Field Elementary, which enrolls many children of families living on base, is particularly hard-hit. Some children have both parents deployed and have gone to live with relatives, principal Shauna Lund said. Some have parents in the Persian Gulf or Korea. And some have no idea where their loved ones have been sent.

Gov. Mike Leavitt on Thursday attempted to reassure Utah children of their safety. He acknowledged the sacrifice of Utah residents in the war and urged children to talk to a trusted adult about their worries.

"If you are like me, you may see images or hear things that will make you feel anxious or worried because the television makes things seem very close. This is natural. Nobody likes war," Leavitt told children in a live morning broadcast on KUED Channel 7, which schools scrambled to tune into.

"This war is very far away from Utah. You won't see or hear anything bad in your neighborhood because of this war. . . . We are safe here in Utah."

Utah schools are urged to reiterate messages of safety.

They're also working to address the war, apt to dominate the airwaves in the days to come, with sensitivity.

And one expert says they might be in better shape than others to do so.

Schools here have access to the Three R's project, which promotes Rights, Responsibilities and Respect and helps teachers address such issues in several contexts, including religion.

"If that has really taken root, that project, I think we have a good many schools in Utah that know how to engage students in a good discussion with civility and respect for differences," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, which is part of the Freedom Forum in Virginia.

Utah schools, following the Sept. 11 attacks, worked to teach children the difference between a people and a regime, and between Islam as a religion and extremists tied to terrorism, Dahn said. That can come in handy in helping students understand the United States is gearing up to fight Iraqi leadership, not necessarily its people or children they might see on TV.

Now that bombs are dropping, schools are working to balance the flow of information.

Hill Field Elementary prefers having parents decide how to handle events with their children but allows discussion in classroom when children bring up Iraq, such as in the context of the U.S. Constitution and what makes our nation great, Lund said.

The school also has a guidance counselor available to talk to children one on one, or set up student support groups at parents' request. It also partners with Davis Behavioral Health workers, and keeps a list of resources on hand for parents who need it.

"We're just trying to be that part of (a child's) life that is normal and consistent," Lund said. "The fact we have school every day, and we're here and not going anyplace, and this is a safe place for children to come adds a lot to helping children. We want them to still be children and be able to run and play and jump and do all those things."

Granite District this week sent a letter to schools about students' free speech rights to speak for or against war or otherwise show protest.

"Student speech can't be prohibited unless it's disruptive (or) includes profanity, vulgarity and threats," Granite District spokeswoman Michele Bartmess said. "We also need to be sensitive to the fact we have kids in our system who have a parent or person close to them who have been called up."

The district also suggests not allowing younger children to be overexposed to news coverage, though "kids involved in current events classes, I'm sure, will be business as usual," and continue to discuss the matter, Bartmess said.

The Jordan Board of Education has developed homeland security procedures, including possibly suspending out-of-state student travel and resorting to school lockdowns during high-risk times to help ensure students in its 82 schools remain safe.

The nation's color-coded homeland security system was upgraded Monday from a cautious yellow to a "high alert" orange.

"The Winter Olympics really forced us to refine and develop wonderful school emergency plans," district spokeswoman Melinda Colton said. "These homeland security procedures are only intended to enhance those."

Dahn also suggests schools put crisis teams on alert in case children need to share their feelings or anxieties with adults.

"Kids who have a need to talk need to know there's somebody in those crisis teams and that there's some emotional sense to this."