Where School Responsibility Ends ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

January 27, 1993

Since 14-year-old Lisa Haenel was murdered on her way to school, every parent whose child walks to Old Mill High has been petrified. Naturally, they want assurances from school officials that their children will be safe.

But to what extent are the schools responsible for the 22,000 Anne Arundel children who walk to and from school every weekday? Are they responsible for what happened to Lisa or to Old Mill students who have met with less serious misfortune on paths and grounds around the school buildings?

Some parents think so. At Old Mill, they're calling for crossing guards or teachers to patrol the area where Lisa was killed.

There are several problems with this suggestion, not the least of which is the function of crossing guards. Crossing guards are trained to assist with traffic matters, not to protect children from bullies or murderers.

Then there's the matter of who owns the path in question. If it's privately owned, school officials have no business being there. Even if it's public, they can't install guards and still maintain a policy of discouraging children from using shortcuts. Patrolling the Old Mill path would not only sanction it as an approved route; it would sanction every other shortcut at every other school in the county.

School officials could not possibly put guards at all these shortcuts, not just because of a lack of manpower, but because it's impossible to know where they all are. Why, last year some Annapolis area students actually swam a creek because it was faster than walking to school on foot!

School officials must discourage students from such hi-jinks, but it's unreasonable to hold them responsible for those teen-agers -- and there will always be plenty -- who choose the less-traveled, less safe routes. Like many school complexes, Old Mill comprises a large area with plenty of out-of-the-way places where kids can enter or exit. There's no way schools can patrol every inch of their neighborhood 24 hours a day.

Schools do play a huge part in pupil safety. It is their responsibility to specify approved routes, warn against shortcuts, provide safety tips and hold an occasional safety assembly. But they can't protect our children alone. Ultimately, that job belongs to parents.

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