Schools have lots to fear, including fear itself

April 30, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The newest martyrs in the Baltimore County public schools are Jody Ulrich and Kelly Butcher, two innocents declared guilty of the crime of attempting to protect themselves from harm.

Their expulsions have set off a wave of public anger (and political grandstanding), and why not? We live in a time of generalized fear, and here were two kids expressing it. Instead of embracing them, instead of finding ways to calm their concerns, we've hidden behind some dry rules in a book and set loose the heartless bureaucrats.

We have, haven't we?

We're all agreed on that, aren't we?

Jody, a 17-year old at Chesapeake High in Essex, carried pepper spray because she worked nights in a shopping mall and wished to get home safely. Kelly, a 13-year old at Pikesville Middle School, was troubled by boys at her bus stop in Owings Mills and carried pepper spray so she wouldn't be accosted.

By accident, their spray canisters were set off by other students. By the rules of the game in Baltimore County, there are no accidents.

And so, for desiring not to be victimized by the thug element in their communities, Jody and Kelly instead find themselves victimized by grown-ups who should know better. Their hearts are said to be broken, and their histories are changed forever.

Pretty simple stuff, huh? Pretty clear case of innocent schoolgirls and a heartless bureaucracy, huh?

Well, yeah, but

But we give ourselves mixed signals on these cases. Of course these girls are innocent. Of course it's absurd to punish the frightened. We talk of safe schools, but we also want them safe from mindless, cover-your-butt bureaucrats who go strictly by the rules instead of their hearts and their common sense.

But these were two cases waiting to happen, and if there are no precedents in Baltimore County, then it's a miracle. They wrote these rules for punishment purposes, but failed to give themselves any loopholes. And they did it willfully, and they did it for political reasons which are both understandable and cowardly.

Nobody wants Baltimore County schools to become the repositories of fear that the schools of Baltimore City have become.

And nobody wants there to be any accusations of favoritism based on race or family status or social connections.

Thus, you have rules that are utterly inflexible.

But the price Baltimore County pays for such peace is that the innocent can get punished along with the guilty.

"We have to make sure the system is fair and consistent," school spokesman Donald I. Mohler III was saying yesterday. "The disadvantaged child has to have the same protection as kids from affluent areas."

He's dancing around the heart of it. He knows that the system itself has to be shielded -- from accusations that it's protecting certain kinds of kids but not others, that it's being tough on certain kids and not others. You write a rule book, and you stand behind the rules, and you've granted yourself a layer of protection.

Yesterday afternoon, responding to public pressure, school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione met with the county's high school principals to consider altering some of the rules.

This is a school system, long regarded as solid, which has looked nervously over its shoulder at the troubles of the city and wondered: How do we keep such violence, and such fears, from our own schools?

"Every survey we've done," Mohler says, "safety is high on the list of what people want in their schools. But you can't want it only in theory. Baltimore County is not a violent school system because we have rules. We have a clear and strict disciplinary policy, which the kids sign off on every year."

There's a logic to such thinking, however much it offends us to see nice children punished. Yes, we do want safe schools. Yes, we do understand that clear rules may keep bad kids from acting out, and thus protect many who would otherwise feel threatened.

"What I'm hearing from principals," says Mohler, "is that they don't want these rules changed. They want us to do everything in our power to make kids safe and get them home at the end of the school day."

Such thinking sounds reasonable, but breaks down on inspection.

It breaks down because there are children who are aggressive, and children who fear the aggressors. These children were clearly among the fearful. Any system that can't make such a distinction needs to find not only a heart, but a brain.

For one thing, it sends a message to the kids: There's nowhere to turn. Not only are you frightened, not only can you not protect yourself, but if an accident happens, you find yourself facing a system that's intransigent and unreasonable and will squash you like a bug to protect itself.

These expulsions send one more message: We're so frightened at loss of control, so concerned about accusations of favoritism, that we've lost all sense of perspective, all sense of nuance, and we don't trust ourselves to judge individual cases.

That's a school system that's afraid of itself -- and afraid of the people it's supposed to serve.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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