The church shootings in which eight people died here tonight came as area youths gathered for the culmination of activities that were part of the nationwide prayer initiative called "See You at the Pole."

The annual student-led prayer meeting was first conducted in 1990 by a group of students in Burleson, a Fort Worth suburb.

Since then, interest in the event has increased to an estimated 3 million students worldwide, youth ministry organizers said.

As part of a national effort to establish prayer groups on public secondary school campuses, a north Texas network of church youth leaders began meeting to coordinate their efforts.

This year, students from church youth groups bolstered fledging school Christian clubs and applied for permission to start Bible studies.

In addition to north Texas efforts, national networks of youth ministers have been encouraging students to begin Bible study groups, said Doug Clark, director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries in San Diego.

In 1996, the network started the Challenge 2000 Alliance, made up of about 60 denominations and national youth ministries dedicated to encouraging students to start campus Christian groups.

Campus prayer groups have been officially allowed in schools since 1984, when Congress approved the Equal Access Act.

The federal law was upheld in 1990 by the Supreme Court.

It requires that students lead the groups and prohibits school officials from sanctioning or discouraging their activities, said Steven Green, general counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national nonprofit group with headquarters in the District.