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Principal fields questions at Sickles forum

What began as an emotionally charged meeting with hundreds of worried parents Wednesday night at Sickles High School became a controlled forum for school officials, who assured parents all was well despite recent fights at the school.

Many officials blamed the media for exaggerating incidents last month that included a lunchroom fracas involving about 40 students and a football player who was attacked in a school restroom.

School officials fielded written questions dealing with issues ranging from drugs to gangs during the two-hour meeting.

The most tension came early on after PTSA president Jay Peters said many of the school's problems could be attributed to teenage male hormones, an assertion that was booed loudly. But the majority of the blame, Peters added, lies with news coverage of the school.

"Frankly, I believe the media is a lot to blame right now," Peters said. In response, one parent shouted, "Don't blame people; find solutions!"

Principal David Smith said he had asked for the expulsions of six students and planned to ask for more. He has suspended 124 students, he said.

"If they don't want to learn, they don't need to be bothering your kids," he said.

His remarks were reassuring to some parents, but left unanswered questions for others.

"Instead of saying there's a problem with the new kids, and this is exactly how we'll deal with it, they talked around it," said Lisa Wright, who attended the meeting with her husband and two daughters. "I don't see how any procedure or protocol has been established to deal with the problem."

Sickles opened for the first time in August, and many parents and officials say tensions arose because students came from many different neighborhoods and feeder schools.

The meeting was the second this week in which school officials faced concerned parents after a rash of fights at the school, and unlike the first, this was open to the public.

A panel of students and school officials faced the audience in the school's auditorium as parents' questions were read by a moderator and addressed, mostly by Smith.

The students on the panel took turns defending their school.

"I'm small, I'm 100 pounds, and I'm not fearing any one here," said student Candace Cusseaux to laughter.

Smith said students are not in danger at his school, and that "things are not as reported."

There are few problems with gangs or drugs at Sickles, Smith said. When one parent asked if any weapons had been found at the school, he said there only one _ a girl who had been hiding a razor blade in her mouth.

The meeting was encouraging to parent Vivian Mathews of Town 'N Country, whose daughter is a junior at Sickles.

"It certainly put my heart to rest to know that a lot of things I heard were not true," Mathews said.

But it did not answer enough questions for Beverly Smeltzer, who said her son, a 10th-grader, was beaten up last week at school.

"I'm scared to death," Smeltzer said. "He says his friends are watching his back. They go in pairs; they do not go any place alone."