Ozark, AL (WSFA) – Gang activity in schools hit close to home this week after police found that the 14-year-old killed in a school shooting near Huntsville, was a result of gang related violence.
"Schools are far more dangerous places than they used to be," admitted Ozark City Schools Superintendent Mike Lenhart.
After 14 years in education, Lenhart knows gang related violence isn't confined to big cities.
He said, "Most of the bad things that happen in schools, happen where you would least expect it."
And at his first job at ED Nixon Elementary in Montgomery, Lenhart saw those problems first hand.
"I was having a very difficult time getting the students to stop flashing gang signs at each other," he said. "So I got with the teachers and said, this is our new sign [showing the sign language for "I love you"], and anything but this is forbidden. That caught on like wildfire."
When Lenhart became the Superintendent of Ozark City Schools, he decided to bring the "I love you" sign language trend with him.
Students there say it has come to mean quite a bit.
"One day, he threw up his sign," said Carroll High School senior Stanley Faniel, "and I asked him what it meant. And he said, 'I love you.'"
"It's always good to know that somebody cares for you," said Senior Ben Duque. "And that there's somebody behind you."
Duque, a member of the school's ROTC, says it's also become a symbol of support that Mr. Lenhart flashes before competitions.
"It gave us hope; and it gave us peace before we went on that floor. Because, let me tell you, it's very nerve-wracking to get up there on that floor with hundreds of other teams competing. So it made us feel good," Duque explained.
"Love is a very strong emotion, and if people feel love, they're not quite as apt to react with anger at something," Lenhart said.
He hopes it's creating a more peaceful environment, and in turn, making the halls a safer place.