W. Pa. Amish school goes on as usual

In Conneautville, news of shooting is vague, feeling is that it couldn't happen here

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Their school day ended, Amish students at the Westview Christian School near Conneautville in Crawford County race for the bus yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

CONNEAUTVILLE, Pa. -- The door to the one-room Amish schoolhouse opened and 30 laughing children ran down the steps, some waving happily to two strangers in the yard as their teachers waved goodbye to them.

For these children along a dirt road outside Conneautville, the only difference from the day before -- when a gunman shot 10 little girls in a similar Amish school across the state -- was that their school door had been locked all day.

They belong to a New Order Amish community, which allows some accommodation to modern methods. Instead of climbing into buggies they boarded a school bus, whose non-Amish driver had been devastated by news of the deadly rampage. She worried about whether the children would be fearful yesterday, but found them cheerful as always.

"I don't think the children knew about it," Frances Hayes said of her charges, who live in Crawford County without television, radio, the Internet or regular access to newspapers.

Many of them did know, said their teachers, Lydia Sue Miller and Miriam Raber. But their faith and way of life is such that their focus will be on praying for those who survive, including the family of the shooter.

Although some of the children spoke with Ms. Miller about it at recess, she did not take class time to discuss the murders and didn't know if anything would change at her school beyond keeping the door locked at all times.

"It was a normal school day. It actually gave us extra zeal to do our best for the Lord," she said.

Westview Christian School was built just three years ago, though some desks are antiques with openings for ink wells. Inside it is bright and cheerful, filled with crayon art and Bible verses. The classroom is divided by a curtain, with grades 1, 2, 5 and 8 on one side and grades 3,4,6 and 7 on the other. The mixed age distribution is so that older children can help the younger ones.

Once before, when there were safety concerns in the neighborhood, the teachers discussed an emergency plan. They believed they could handle an intrusion because "we have a back door, we have neighbors, and we have a phone," Ms. Miller said.

On Monday they dismissed their students, locking the door as they always did when they were alone. At 3 p.m. an Amish neighbor came to tell them of the tragedy. He had heard it from someone with a relative in Lancaster.

"He was surprised to find our door locked," Ms. Miller said. "He told us, 'You keep it that way.' "

So they did.

She believes most parents had discussed the murders with their children the night before. At recess, one boy told her that he didn't believe anything like that could happen at Westview.

"I said I didn't like to think that either, but that those children went to their school yesterday thinking nothing like that could happen to them. That's how we'd all like to feel," she said.

Ms. Miller has 11 years' teaching experience. She didn't have a classroom discussion because she believes it is the parents' responsibility to help their children face tragedy in the light of faith.

"We are here to help the parents," she said. "Today when they came to school, you would not have known anything had happened. We adults had a harder struggle than the children did. I give credit to God and to their parents."

Among those parents is Emanuel Erb, a former Amish school superintendent, with children at Westview. He thought the subject might come up at a monthly school meeting last night, but expected most discussion to be about lessons and conduct. His own knowledge of the murders was limited.

"We don't get a daily paper. I've heard very little about the incident, although I know it was a terrible thing," he said. "It will probably be a week or so before people find out much about it."

His concern about how it would affect the school had more to do with spirituality than security. The Amish take Jesus' command to love their enemy literally.

"The last thing we want people to do is feel evil toward people who do things like this," he said.

Written in perfect script on Ms. Miller's blackboard was the week's Bible memory verse, placed there before the killer struck: "A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1."

"I think that was appropriate for this week," she said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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