Howard schools' bunker mentality

March 17, 1995

For those who toil in the media, having an occasional door slammed in one's face comes with the territory. But being shut out of a meeting that is supposed to be open to the public or being barred from a public building isn't likely to put a halt to media scrutiny. In fact, it often spurs the opposite result. That's happening in Howard County, where school officials have refused to allow a reporter from The Evening Sun to observe classes in a program for emotionally disturbed students.

The reporter, following standard procedure, asked for permission visit the program at Waterloo Elementary but was denied by Principal Karen Moore-Roby. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey refused to override the principal's decision in spite of a written policy that says visitors can see school programs with 24 hours notice.

The program at Waterloo has become the focus of protests from parents at Stevens Forest Elementary, where school officials hope to transfer some of Waterloo's emotionally troubled students. Questions have been raised about the program's operation, as well as fears about disruptive students.

The Board of Education is expected to rule Thursday on whether to transfer students to Stevens Forest. Officials say they will continue to bar reporters until after that decision is made.

School officials justify their action by saying they have not been happy with The Evening Sun's coverage in this matter, $l particularly when it has focused on views of the opposition. Higher principles are at work here, however, that should cause the administration to reconsider its decision.

One is that in a democracy a variety of viewpoints are tolerated. What lessons are school officials teaching students when they attempt to influence the outcome of an event by limiting discussion?

Second, the media at times acts as a surrogate for the public, which often lacks the time to get the information on its own.

Third, Howard officials need look no farther than neighboring Baltimore County to see what happens when school officials act bullheadedly on a sensitive issue such as special-ed inclusion. Perhaps they missed the TV footage that showed police officers escorting that county's superintendent and board president to safety from angry crowds there a couple of years ago. We have commended the Howard system for its measured approach to inclusion. It needs to rethink its new bunker mentality.

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