Board's measured response to security issue was welcome

October 29, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

I flew out of BWI shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Everywhere I looked, there were big men with big guns in full military uniform. Did I feel safer because of it? No, I felt spooked.

This isn't to say I didn't appreciate their presence, but they didn't make me "feel" safer. They made me feel as if all hell might break out at any moment.

And I was an adult. I could imagine the impression it might leave on a little kid. So the Washington County School Board's swift, but measured response to security concerns comes as a relief.

Something about The Herald-Mail's recent investigation of schoolhouse security initially made me uneasy, but it took me quite a while to put my finger on what it was.


Reacting to several school shootings and subsequent questions about school security, the paper sent reporters, unannounced, into several schools throughout the Tri-State to see if they could get into the building and walk through the hallways, no questions asked.

They could. And did. And for the most part, the only intervention or contact came in the form of a cheery hello from teacher or staff, and the occasional offer of assistance. No sign in, no metal detector, no interrogation, no security of any kind. Nothing to stop a well-armed, bug-eyed wack-job from walking in and opening fire.

But I couldn't work up any outrage with the school system for being asleep at the switch. This was strange, since my outrage mechanism operates on a hair-trigger.

After about two days it finally came together. The schools behaved in exactly the way that I, as a parent, would want them to behave: Warm, welcoming, open, friendly.

I know I'm on an island on this and I know a gunman could walk into a classroom tomorrow and make me look like a fool. But I don't want an armed, uniform guard at the schoolhouse doorway. I don't want 7-year-old kids to have to walk through a metal detector every morning and get the idea that this is the way life should be. I don't want my child or any child to grow up in a paranoid, lockdown world.

I don't want fear to be the tail that wags our nation.

And yet someone like me cannot make the argument that maybe, just maybe, it's time for everyone to chill out a tad, and not assume the sky is falling - or potentially could fall - at every turn.

At least I can't make the argument without someone sitting there saying "what if?" What if a gunman does walk into school? What if a terrorist is slipping explosives into the hair gel? What if a whole bunch of things that have never happened before, happen?

Well sure, that's an easy and airtight game to play. Theoretically, anything bad can happen. But I believe the more we expect that something bad will occur, the more likely that occurrence becomes. And here America sits, smack in the middle of a self-fulfilling prophesy of fear-fueled violence.

But isn't it better to be prepared? Ounce or prevention? Better safe than sorry? I'm not so sure anymore. I'm not so sure that guarding against a one-in-a-million chance is worth the cost in dollars (remember the county's Lenco Bearcat?) or the cost in psychology.

Organic gardeners know that insects don't attack healthy, confident plants, they attack weak, cowering plants. Yes, you can toss on a few handfuls of chemicals as a defense, but that costs money and harms birds and beneficial insects and throws the normal ecological system out of balance. This doesn't mean turning a blind eye, or failing to pick off a harmful bug when one does appear. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a shot of powder is called for.

It's all about balance, not overkill. Second Amendment proponents, if they're honest with themselves, know there is a somewhat greater risk to society that comes with an open gun market. And as a nation, we have chosen to live with that risk rather than see a government monopoly on weapons ownership.

Likewise, a free, open nation will have security risks that do not exist under a nation ruled by a military-backed despot. But I would suggest those risks are rather inconsequential, especially to those who, through history, have publicly disagreed with the actions of military despots.

A people is either free, or it is under the control of the government. It cannot be both. We are drifting toward control, and because of the fearmongers and overreactors, few are stepping forward to say "this is wrong."

It is heartening that when the dust settled it became apparent that both The Herald-Mail and the School Board acted properly. Acting as watchdog, the newspaper pointed out a potential problem. The board could have done three things, two of them bad. It might have crawled into a shell, denied a problem and taken some bitter shots at the practice of "gotcha journalism." Or it could have overreacted and gone total boot camp, with trophy cases exchanged for guardposts.

Instead, the board did the right thing - some measured precautions including sign-in and badges for visitors - that the kids will barely notice. And the community appreciated it. Instead of a black eye, the board came out of the situation winning praise for acknowledging a problem and dealing with it reasonably.

That's a community working well together. Pity that our national community cannot do the same.

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