A Marijuana Bust Hits a Raw Nerve

COMMENT

November 08, 1992|By Elise Armacost

"No big deal," the reporter said, just after the story of Anne Arundel County's biggest marijuana bust in history hit the wire.

Journalists, like a lot of people, sometimes become desensitized to crime. An armed robbery at the corner grocery? Tell the editor to send someone else. A body in a West Baltimore alley? Make it a 5-inch "brief." Eight hundred pounds of pot? Who cares? A lot of people think the stuff ought to be legal, anyway.

And yet, this was a big deal -- not because of the quantity of drugs (though 800 pounds of marijuana worth $1 million is nothing to take lightly), but because one of the people accused of distributing it is the principal of Severna Park Elementary School.

Because of that, the story made national headlines. Daytime talk show host Montel Williams asked the Sun reporter who covered the raid to appear on his program. Defensive parents -- angry at the media for being a messenger of bad news -- screamed obscenities at journalists. And education officials closed ranks, turning the school into a virtual fortress.

Hundreds of crime stories are written every day. Most are read and forgotten. Only a handful provoke lasting emotion. The carjacking death of Pam Basu two months ago did, partly because of the gruesome nature of the crime but mostly because of where it occurred. Things like that weren't supposed to happen in nice Howard County neighborhoods.

Like the Basu killing, the arrest of Patricia Emory struck a raw nerve. It shocked, infuriated and upset -- not so much because of what she allegedly did, but because of who she is. Drug kingpins are supposed to be thugs, not middle-aged women with Ph.Ds. And they are certainly not supposed to be teachers or school principals. The very idea is heresy.

For all that educators complain about being held in low esteem, our society invests them with a trust accorded to members of few professions. Only ministers and police officers, perhaps, are held to a higher standard -- and even they are viewed with a cynicism not directed toward teachers and principals. From the time we are children, we are taught to think of the teacher as someone who sets an example, someone all-wise, to be obeyed and admired. The teacher corrects your mistakes, but never makes any of his or her own.

Perhaps it is different in big cities, but in the small town where I grew up and in every place I've worked popular educators have been treated with a reverence that few others in the community enjoy. They are treated, essentially, like family.

Whenever a well-liked school leader is charged publicly with wrongdoing, the reaction is almost always one of intense defensiveness. The community rallies around the accused, pledges support and refuses to believe what allegedly happened. Almost without exception, the defenders lash out at the media, which they perceive as trying to inflict intentional hurt.

"Why are you doing this? This is a good school," a Severna Park woman screamed at a reporter last week before spitting out a string of expletives -- as though the media were conspiring to discredit their school and frighten their children.

Those who make such accusations don't stop to think that they read or listen to stories just like this every day, but because they happen somewhere else they forget them and move on -- just as people all over the nation did last week when the Severna Park story made the news. An elementary principal charged as a drug kingpin is going to make headlines, whether the dateline is Severna Park or East Orange, N.J.

There are those who feel it is unfair for members of certain professions to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. In fact, there's a very good reason for that. Teachers, policemen, ministers, doctors, nurses -- they all have a public trust. We trust them to be responsible for our well-being and to set an example. When they engage in wrongdoing, their actions constitute a betrayal that is impossible for, say, auto mechanics or plumbers.

Patricia Emory is innocent until proven otherwise. But the emotional turmoil that accompanied her arrest shows the strength of feeling and the depth of trust attached to public educators. A $1 million marijuana bust is news, no matter who's accused. But when an elementary school principal is involved, every parent and child whose life he or she touched becomes VTC involved, too.

It is a very big deal, indeed.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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