Frightened parents, confusion prompt schools to close early

Sean Keller and his co-workers weren't getting anything done. They couldn't stop talking about the unspeakable terror in New York and Washington. By lunch, he had had enough - and drove to Columbia to take his 2-year-old daughter out of her preschool early.

"How do you work?" asked Keller, of Clarksville. "This is a time to gather your family, be thankful for what you've got and pray for those affected."

In the wake of yesterday's horrors, decisions like that were commonplace among parents of students across the Baltimore area as they flocked to grab their children out of schools, hug them and take them home.

Some found children in tears, asking questions that simply could not be answered. Some struggled to decide what to say, particularly to those too young to really understand.

"Everything was chaotic at school," said Diana Fields, a 16-year-old student at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "People were crying everywhere. They knew people who were involved, possibly - in the planes and in the Pentagon. It was crazy. We just decided to go home."

By 11:30 in the morning, dozens of jittery parents were arriving at Dulaney High School in Timonium to retrieve their children. Some were trembling and tearful as they crowded into the main office. Principal Lyle Patzkowsky said he understood parents' concerns: "What you're working on is the unknown."

Confusion was apparent as many schools started emptying out before noon when local TV stations reported the governor's office had decreed that all Maryland schools should be closed early, a report that state officials later said was incorrect.

The misinformation had been conveyed by the state education department, which soon tried to correct it - but not before it had spread to many schools. By the time Baltimore City school officials learned that the state had not ordered all jurisdictions to shut their schools, they felt they had no choice but to order their schools closed.

All Baltimore area jurisdictions closed schools early, though some, such as Howard and Baltimore counties, closed only an hour or less ahead of schedule.

Decisions on whether to hold classes today had not been made in all areas last night.

Baltimore and Carroll counties plan to open schools. Howard planned to open, but officials may change that decision this morning.

In Anne Arundel County, with a large population of military families, schools will be closed, as will those in Montgomery. And city school officials said the system would be open, but Harford County officials had not made their decisions as of early last night.

Many Maryland colleges and universities shut down early yesterday, too. The University of Maryland, College Park stayed open yesterday, but President C.D. Mote Jr. has declared a day of mourning today - keeping the campus open but canceling classes. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on the campus mall.

The school closings seemed to stem less from actual fears for the safety of students than from a general state of shock.

"That was an act of war," said Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston. "If anyone could be that deliberate to kill ... Americans on American soil and to see the Pentagon [under attack] ... and to see sharpshooters on the White House ... this isn't a game."

Depending on the ages of their students, many teachers reacted to the unfolding carnage by treating it as an opportunity for discussion. They went beyond simply assuring their charges that they were safe in school, letting them watch what was happening on television and express their fears and thoughts to one another.

"What was happening was a lot more important than anything I was going to teach," said Brian King, health education teacher at Western High School in Baltimore.

At Severna Park Elementary School, Debbie Rice raced out with her 8-year-old son, who knew nothing about what had happened. "It's very chaotic right now," she said. "He doesn't know anything about it yet. He asked me, 'What's going on?'"

At Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School in downtown Baltimore, second-grader Todd Alexander said his teacher tried to explain what had happened and why school was letting out - all of which left him afraid. "I figured the person [who did it] was coming here," Todd said as he and his sister, Lauren, 4, a pre-kindergartner, were being escorted from the building by his father.

Fears were a little more real at Catoctin High School near Thurmont, where school was in session but some parents came to take their kids home anyway.

"I don't think she realizes how close we are to Camp David," salesman Tom Troast said as he retrieved his 15-year-old daughter from class. "That's where they hide the president a lot of times. I'm sure he's a possible target. If they drop a bomb, it most certainly will affect us."

Seven Anne Arundel County schools are on the grounds of Fort Meade, and hundreds of parents showed up at those schools to take their children home. At Meade Middle School, 231 of the school's 850 students were withdrawn early by their parents.

Susan Kelly arrived at 10:45 a.m. to pick up her 12-year-old daughter, Mandi. Kelly waited with dozens of parents in the school lobby while her daughter was paged. "I just don't feel she's safe here because this school's on a military base," she said. "There's just too much going on."

Parents hugged their children as they arrived in the lobby and took them out hand-in-hand. One father put his arm around his son and said, "Don't worry about your stuff. This is more important."

Meade Middle School guidance counselor Jim Vaughn said one mother arrived to pick up her eighth-grade son and told school staff that four members of her extended family had been killed - two at the Pentagon and two at the World Trade Center. "She was so distraught she could hardly stand up," Vaughn said. "She had to go outside to sit down."

Yesterday's events gave schools run by the Catholic Archdiocese Of Baltimore the chance to put into effect a newly forged crisis plan. Superintendent Ronald J. Valenti e-mailed principals of the 37,000-student system, urging them to respond to crisis, not to create it. He advised principals not to call large assemblies where "the potential for hysteria exists."

Valenti recommended that young children be shielded from "unfiltered" newscasts that might alarm them unnecessarily. Prayer services, he advised, "should be mindful of students who may directly be impacted by the crisis."

Area Jewish schools, too, were besieged by anxious parents, and they, like their Catholic counterparts, turned to prayer.

Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, said his institution heightened security, watching entrances for intruders. "We had an hour-long prayer session, and it was packed," he said.

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Lane Harvey Brown, Liz Bowie, Mike Bowler, Larry Carson, Lisa Goldberg, Rob Hiaasen, Melody Holmes, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Stephen Kiehl, Alec MacGillis, Jennifer McMenamin, Erika Niedowski, Jackie Powder and Michael Scarcella contributed to this article.