U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-5th District) remembers his days as a student at Suitland High School, from which he graduated in 1957. Then, Hoyer recalled, he and his classmates never worried about any more serious violence than the occasional fistfight.

But these days, he said, it's different. That's why he chatted with student government leaders from all 20 of the county's high schools Friday during a conference in Lanham.

"A leader has the responsibility to make life better and safer, richer and more fulfilling for those who put us in this position," he told the students.

In the wake of the deadly school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and in Conyers, Ga., Hoyer talked with county students about ways to prevent such tragedies.

The Prince George's students had ideas about what has made the culture more violent over the last three decades.

Danielle Graham, 17, a junior at High Point High School, said the media has made young people desensitized to violence. "You see it so much, it's like, 'Okay, I'm not concerned with it,' " she said.

Raychon Stroman, 17, a junior at Central High, said that "a lot of the problems begin at home. A lot of students don't have parents at home. If you don't have a parent who is involved with you, you should give that child a mentor."

Tamara Graves, 17, a junior at Bowie High School, agreed and said that many students she knows are having children of their own--way before they are mature enough to handle such a responsibility.

"They're not prepared, and the child is left with Grandma or a neighbor all day," Graves said. "That's no way to raise a child."

Hoyer said he is disgusted by the gratuitous violence in professional wrestling and ice hockey, and he encouraged the students to boycott such sports to make their opinions heard.

Hoyer also said he believes the "weakest link" in American education is parents, who he says are more often leaving their children at home alone and failing to get involved in their lives.

Graves and other student leaders said the conference gave them ideas for ways to help prevent violence and educate their peers next school year.

For Clark, a Fond Farewell

For one glorious night last week, School Superintendent Jerome Clark could forget the rapid-fire criticism, the headaches over budget cutbacks and the political squabbles that have been a weekly occurrence this spring.

Last Wednesday, about 1,000 school, government and business leaders, school activists and other county residents gathered at a ballroom in Greenbelt to praise and toast Clark, not to bury him.

They danced. They sang. They joked and smiled and laughed, and a few even wiped away some tears while watching a video of Clark's four-year term in the top post--which included a clip of him singing in his baritone voice.

Clark, the county's first black superintendent, has announced that he will retire at the end of this month. The banquet was a way to honor a man who has served the county schools for 28 years. The night's theme clearly was that Clark had served the 128,000-student school system admirably and faithfully, that he has had successes and that he is not the only one to blame for the system's current struggles.

"You have been unfairly criticized," County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) told Clark in a speech. "I am here to answer those critics, who are uninformed, because I know you won't. When you held up a looking glass and they didn't like the reflection, they blamed you for holding up the mirror. You are a visionary, a creative and courageous public school manager. Your courage has been your hallmark."

Even as the celebration was taking place, the search for Clark's successor moved forward. This weekend, the county Board of Education interviewed six finalists. Among them were John Thompson, superintendent of Tulsa schools; Patricia A. Daniel, former superintendent of Hartford, Conn., schools; Jacqueline Brown, a Howard County school administrator whose duties include overseeing minority student achievement; and Roger Reese, chief financial officer of Baltimore City schools, according to sources close to the search.

But last Wednesday was a night for looking back, not forward. Clark's college roommate, Archie Dong, from the University of Massachusetts, talked about the odd couple the diminutive Dong and tall, imposing Clark made while walking around campus.

Former county superintendents John A. Murphy (1984-91) and Edward M. Felegy (1991-95) also were there. Felegy recalled the time in the late 1970s when he was a mid-level administrator interviewing candidates for a job.

"I asked each candidate, 'Where do you see yourself in 10 years?' Most said, 'I hope to be at a good school, as a principal,' " Felegy recalled. "But then came this tall and imposing man, who said, 'In 10 years, I want to have your job, and then I want to be the superintendent of schools.' And that's exactly what he did."

Clark has been portrayed as generally a private man who loves to tackle the business of the classroom but shied away from the limelight and politicking that goes along with his high-profile job.

He addressed the crowd--which included his wife, parents and children--briefly. "Prince George's is still a place called 'Hope,' " Clark said. "It's a place to bring young people who have dreams and aspirations. As I exit as superintendent, I will still remain a citizen of the county and do all I can for children here. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Tonight, I'm not closing a book on my career, I'm ending a chapter. I hope you all can help me fill the pages of the next chapter."

CAPTION: School Superintendent Jerome Clark talks with Bowie High School Principal Patricia Brooks at a dinner honoring him in Greenbelt.