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School officials reassure Porcupine students they truly are safe

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PORCUPINE, S.D. ? Teachers and counselors at the Porcupine Day School made a special effort to talk to students about the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and leveled a portion of the Pentagon, trying to calm fears the children might have about their safety.

Unlike the majority of schools across the nation, the year-round school district on the Pine Ridge reservation, didn't have television sets tuned into the live broadcast of the Sept. 11 events.

Students didn't see images of airliners crashing, buildings collapsing and burning until they arrived home because the cable service to the school was under repair.

Teachers carefully informed students of the events, sparing them gruesome details so many students at other schools watched on television. Classes went on as usual with students doing daily assignments that fill their day.

The American and Oglala Sioux Tribe flags flew at half staff throughout the week, signifying a nation in crisis.

Only about half of a class of eighth graders and 75 percent of seventh-grade students said they saw the images when they watched the news at home. Many spoke of their fears of a potential war and the prospects of other attacks.

Counselor Shane Montgomery said teachers and counselors have been working in the classroom to relieve any fears students might have.

'What I want to come in and ask you about is to see if you have any concerns,' Montgomery said.

The news was everywhere, on television with regular programming interrupted by live newscasts, on the computer and radio. Adults on the reservation were frozen in front of televisions, listening closely to the radio awaiting word the attacks were over. Some worried about Tribal Chairman John Steele who was the nation's capital when the Pentagon was attacked.

On Thursday, Sept. 13 students were still shaken by fears of war. Most are too young to remember the Gulf War and they were learning that this was the first time since Pearl Harbor the United States had been attacked within its boundaries.

'If there is a war, will we get bombed on the reservation?' asked one student who worried that air attacks might have only been the beginning of a series of attacks.

Other students worried about older siblings, aunts and uncles already serving in the military and some who might be called for military duty in response to the terrorist acts.

Students were given a short history about the wars involving the United States. Teacher Robert Stone noted that none of the conflicts took place on U.S. soil and he showed students on a world map the countries where the people who were believed to have engaged in the attacks were from.

Students asked why the attacks took place and school officials told them it was entirely possible it could have been people angered by oppression or simply extremists.

Montgomery cautioned students about the feeling of hate or prejudice toward an entire nation of people because a small group of people might have launched the attack.

The discussion took a turn toward racial identity when some students said they felt far removed from the events and more closely identified with the Native culture than being Americans under fire.

Still some adults shared concerns about being the victims of mistaken racial identity as racial profiling might intensify in reaction to the events.

'They have an identity as Indian people, but not so much as Americans. It's not taught at the schools. It comes from the home,' Montgomery said. 'This is something that will affect every American.'

Brianne Blue Bird, 13, of Wounded Knee said she found herself thinking about the shattered lives of families who lost family members in the buildings that were attacked. 'I wondered a lot about mothers and children. They were people's classmates and people's parents.'

Teachers struggled with how much to show or tell children since too many details might be disruptive or create more fears.

Nearly three-quarters of the students surveyed in a seventh-grade classroom indicated their relatives board airlines. Some were worried about airline safety.

One student said he didn't have many fears at first, but later he admitted, 'If I think about it, I'm scared.'

Experts across the nation have warned that subjecting the children to too many images might frighten them even more. School officials suggested parents take time to talk to their children and reassure them that they are safe. This was a difficult task for some parents who admitted they felt differently about their own safety after seeing the destruction that took place in a matter of minutes.

Bringing the message close to home was the fact the Pine Ridge police and fire departments sent a team of 20 emergency medical technicians to help with the cleanup and rescue efforts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.