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Schools Try to Help Students Face Fears : War: Educators in the South Bay are using a variety of approaches to allow youngsters to express their feelings about the Persian Gulf crisis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted, Nancy Pelton has noticed changes among some students at Dodson Junior High School in San Pedro.

“There is a lot of misbehavior, a lot of crying in the classroom,” said Pelton, a special-education teacher and counselor. “They are vulnerable to all the pressures in the world.”

The war’s impact has been especially felt at Dodson, with its large contingent of children from military families who live in nearby Navy housing. School officials estimate that 80 Dodson students have a parent serving in the gulf.

To help those children and their classmates, Pelton last week began opening her classroom to students during the lunch period so they would have a place to gather and talk about the war and whatever was on their minds.

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“It’s just a place for them to come and talk and have someone hold their hand,” Pelton said.

Routines at many schools throughout the South Bay were interrupted last week as attention turned to the war. In addition to daily discussions between teachers and students about the war, pupils have organized letter-writing campaigns to military personnel overseas and to members of Congress and President Bush. Still others have mounted protests against the war.

“Some have family members in the gulf--cousins, brothers and a few uncles,” said Billie Jean Knight, principal of Manhattan Beach Intermediate School. “It’s a very serious time for everyone.”

School administrators said they have not scheduled special assemblies or other activities to address the war, preferring instead to give teachers the option of altering lesson plans to deal with the crisis.

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In Lawndale, a memo was sent to the district’s seven schools Thursday urging teachers and administrators to maintain daily routines but to give updates on the war whenever possible and give students a chance to express their feelings about the war.

Students at Hawthorne Intermediate School, who sent out 650 letters to American soldiers in Saudi Arabia before Christmas, have been viewing television reports of the war once a day and discussing developments with their teachers.

The approach has allowed the seventh- and eighth-graders to “feel very much a part of what’s going on,” Principal Cheryl Lampe said.

That was the aim at the Arnold Elementary School in Torrance, where a third-grade teacher discussed with students how it would feel to lose all their possessions or have someone take over their homes, Principal Janice Schultz said.

“She had a pretend invasion, where she cordoned off six desks in the room and said the desks had been invaded and you can’t go home,” Schultz said. “They learned to live kind of off the land. . . . She ended it at lunchtime to let them get at their lunches. It gave them a sense of what it would be like.”

Schultz added: “We were trying to develop some empathy for what it would be like to be a Kuwaiti.”

Some students have taken to the streets to protest the war. On Wednesday, 100 students at Dana Junior High School in San Pedro walked off campus to protest. They were later disciplined for leaving school without permission, shouting obscenities in a supermarket and other disruptive activities.

At the Nick G. Parras School in Redondo Beach, more than two dozen seventh- and eighth-graders were suspended for a day after they marched off campus Thursday afternoon to protest the bombing of Iraq. The students marched to neighboring Redondo Union High School and gathered on a football field for a prayer session.

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Although administrators offered to help the students find more appropriate ways to vent their feelings, they refused to return to their classes, opting instead to shout slogans at passing cars, Redondo Beach City School District Supt. Beverly Rohrer said.

“The youngsters were not suspended for their position on the war,” Rohrer said. “They were suspended for disturbing the educational process and defying school authority.”

Along with the protests have come displays of support for American troops.

The day after the bombing began, students at Hawthorne and Leuzinger high schools in the Centinela Valley Union High School District started the school day by observing a minute of silence.

Leuzinger Principal Sonja Davis said the silent observance was particularly moving for teachers and students because four former students are serving in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. The soldiers graduated two years ago and enlisted together.

The student council has made plans to distribute yellow ribbons around the school “so they can feel they are doing something,” Davis said.

Kindergartners at Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach on Friday sent hand-drawn pictures and messages to Chris Schmutz, a former student at Pacific who is with the Marine Corps in Saudi Arabia.

“They came in so upset and needed someone to reach out to and touch, so they sat down and everyone wrote a little message,” teacher Stana Edgington said.

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One message said: “I don’t want any war, but get Hussein out of Kuwait.” Another said: “Dear soldier, be brave and fight as hard as you can. We care about you.”

At Dodson, Pelton recalled an encounter with a girl whose mother and father are serving in the gulf. “All she did was put her head down and cry,” Pelton said. Another girl whose brother is in the Persian Gulf told her that her family went to church last Sunday.

“She said, ‘We all prayed if he died he went to heaven right away’,” Pelton said.

Already, Pelton said, she has noticed that children seem to be more accepting of the gulf situation. She said many military children are probably accustomed to their parents being gone because they were shipped out many weeks ago.

But she said she would keep her classroom open during the lunch period. “We’ll continue it until we no longer have to,” she said.

Times staff writers Gerald Faris, Kim Kowsky, Anthony Millican and Janet Rae-Dupree contributed to this story.


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