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Dateline:School Children Feel Safer After a Tour At US Capitol - 2001-12-13

Public tours at the United States Capitol, where Congress conducts business, reopened over the weekend on December 8. But a few days earlier one group of school children from Washington, D.C. was granted a special tour. The student outing was more than educational, it was part of a healing process.

"Take a big step coming through…beep beep, step back please . . . Anything electronic, anything magnetic in your pockets, take out of your hand and place it in the bowl and pick it up afterwards, okay? Make sure you don't forget to do that," said a security official. For the fourteen students from Backus Middle School in Northeast Washington, going through tight security at the U.S. Capitol building wasn't a hassle, but a welcome mini miracle. Their congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, had promised them a tour of the Capitol that day even though public tours had been canceled after anthrax was found in a letter in a Senate office building.

The students went on their fieldtrip as scheduled, with special permission from Capitol officials. Sixth grader Tracy John was amazed when she first arrived and tilted her head until her eyes reached the top of the 55 meter Rotunda, which is the center of the Capitol dome. "When we first got off the van, I didn't know there was a statue on top of the Capitol. And then it was a tour guide up there, and so I walked up to the tour guide and, I asked her what was the statue's name and she said her name was 'Freedom," she said. These children were devastated on September 11, when one of their teachers, Sarah Clark, and their fellow classmate, Asia Cottom, were killed in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The two had been headed for Los Angeles for an educational conference. Even though the sixth grade students had only known their teacher, Ms. Clark, for a few days, the deaths left them feeling threatened. The students on the fieldtrip wanted to prove to themselves that they feel safe at home in Washington after their loss.

Congresswoman Norton arranged for the United States House of Representatives Sergeant-at-Arms, its chief law enforcement officer, to give the children a tour. "The fact is that the capital of the United States is the safest city in the United States precisely because it is the capital, and because every precaution has been taken. This is going to take place today in order not to disappoint these children," she said. The students' new social studies and reading teacher, Janice Mead, felt a sense of relief. "It's real special. I've only been these children's teacher for a week and half, but these children lost their teacher, and a friend, and this is their way of kind of rebuilding confidence in the system. So I'm glad we're here," she said. The students were thrilled as well. In the Sergeant-at-Arms office, they touched the mace the symbol of the authority of the U.S. House that must be presented in the chambers before the representatives can conduct business."Everybody put your hand on it, touch the eagle, it means freedom, that's freedom, that's freedom, it's what we're all about."

They learned about events in American history, such as the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s."Do you all know what temperance is? Temperance is the drive to abolish alcohol."

They saw members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in action. "Girls and boys, the House is in session. So you're actually going to see how the proceedings of the House are actually conducted."

And just as in class, they answered questions."Now, in the 19 century, who do you think consumed more alcohol, men or women?" "Women." "Women. Women?"

Back at school the next day, Colby Lashley said history had come alive for her in the Capitol, but in the quiet moments, she and her classmates still thought about their fear and their loss."And most of us, we were thinking about our teacher and how fun it would be if she were here because she makes education fun too, but we were thinking about her and Asia, and how she would be smiling around, looking at the statues," she said. Sixth grader Christopher Oliver said the class will never forget Ms. Clark."Even though we only knew her for a couple of days, she will still be a part of our lives. Even when we pass away, I hope that she will still be remembered as a great teacher and a great parent," he said.

And Christopher also believes the people of the United States should stand up to terror threats. "We need to show America that we're not afraid of terrorists, but we're also, that we're ready for it also, because that shows them that we are brave, and that we can stand up to whatever they can dish out," he said. The sixth graders who went on the fieldtrip feel more safe now. Colby said she had a very good time, and she hopes someday she can visit the Capitol again.