CLARKSBURG -- High school senior Keith Linger knows everyone in his class.
He attends South Harrison High, where there are about 390 students enrolled per year. The school is the smallest of the five public high schools in Harrison County. His class has 84 seniors.
While he doesn't know everyone by name in the entire school, he could easily pick out a stranger or a new student in the hall, he said.
"We're tight-knit here. It's like being from a small community," he said. "You just get individual attention and the teachers know you on a first-name basis, even if you don't have them for class."
Feeling connected to other students and teachers is a crucial part of a student's behavior and health, according to a recent study. That connection can be lost at large consolidated schools, the study showed.
The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health surveyed 72,000 junior and high school students. The results showed that when student enrollment at a single school surpasses 1,200, students become isolated, which can lead to destructive behaviors.
West Virginia University professor Van Dempsey has studied student transitions from small schools to larger ones.
"The stronger the relationship between the student and the teachers, the less likely the student is to be violent, truant or dropout," he said. "Throw a teen-ager in a big, impersonal high school, and it sometimes becomes too easy for them to disappear."
Dempsey points to school shootings the past several years as examples of students becoming disenfranchised.
"Those were not inner-city schools. They were large, suburban, rural schools," he said. "Moves to larger schools may offer more curriculum, but it doesn't make any difference if students are becoming detached or dropping out."
The state Department of Education has not tracked statistics on violence, alcohol and drug incidents, truancy and dropout rates in relation to school size, said Mary Jane Kerwood, the department's coordinator for safe and drug-free schools.
Schools do report weapons, drugs, alcohol, fighting and tobacco incidents to the state. Last year, these were reported at Harrison County high schools:
3 Robert C. Byrd, 949 enrolled, 109 incidents
3 Bridgeport, 778 enrolled, 43 incidents
3 Liberty, 705 enrolled, 41 incidents
3 Lincoln, 654 enrolled, 82 incidents
3 South Harrison, 395 enrolled, 46 incidents
Those numbers reflect only the situations reported, so there could have been more, said Harrison County Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator Kathy Loretta.
Former principal and current Harrison County school board member Wilson Currey has worked at both small and large schools. He believes there are less discipline problems at small schools.
"In a small school, a principal might know more about the student and the family and could cut off the problem when it starts developing," he said. "In a large school, the principal can't know all the students, their families and the problems they're having."
At RCB, Principal Leon Pilewski said he and his staff make an effort to get to know all the students. He too has worked at small and large schools.
"We have more kids, and it takes everyone working together to get to know them and notice changes in their behaviors," he said. "It does take more attention to detail and a lot of teamwork."
The students are assigned an adviser for four years who gets to know them in a non-academic way, Pilewski said. That relationship helps students maintain a connection, he said.
His school also provides programs on drug awareness and peer mediation to help curb destructive behaviors that can occur at large schools, he said.
Josh Dunbar is a freshman at RCB. He's seen a lot of fights since he started at the school, he said. While he recognizes most everyone in his class, he doesn't know everyone in the school.
"I see new people every day walking down the hall," he said.
Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org