End of innocence in Howard

September 29, 1994

Howard County lost some more of its innocence this week when crime crept into the school system in a way previously unheard of in the county. Kathleen Johnson, who had taught physical education and health at Howard High School for 21 years, had just arrived for work Tuesday morning when she was apparently accosted by two men. They left her semiconscious on her office floor after robbing and stabbing her.

The school day had not officially begun, but arriving teachers and students quickly got word of the crime and shock spread through the building. By the noontime newscasts, the community at large was feeling the reverberations.

With all the demagoguery on the political stump, one might imagine that metropolitan residents are by now numb to the impact of violence; the media makes everyone witness to it daily. Yet there are still communities like Columbia, where residents feel insulated from certain crimes, particularly violent ones. They are not.

In fact, the county school system has been jolted before. Two years ago, teacher Shirley Rue Mullinix was slain by one of the students she home-tutored. Because the incident did not occur in a school building, and the youth who was later convicted was found to have been deeply troubled, the incident seemed more aberration than trend.

The Johnson stabbing is different. At least outside the inner cities, schools are still considered sanctuaries. Moreover, many questions remain in this case. Mrs. Johnson, who was listed in stable condition a day after the attack, has been unable to provide a description of her assailants other than that they were males. Police and school officials are still not sure how they entered and exited the school undetected.

The fact that county high schools now open before dawn to save money on transportation costs, with students arriving around 7:30 a.m, may have enabled the crime to occur more easily. But by itself, the early hour is not enough to explain what happened. School officials are now considering measures to provide better protection for both staff and students.

The most radical step would be to hire security guards to patrol school buildings, but officials have been understandably reluctant to consider such measures in the past. Posting security guards would be an overreaction, but no doubt the community is painfully having to reevaluate its self-image in the wake of this incident.

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