Bullying the messenger School and health officials erred by tossing media from meeting.

March 09, 1998

JUST WHEN it seemed that school and health officials in Howard County were getting their act together in dealing with public health concerns, they blundered badly by blocking access to information for the community.

Both departments worked well a week ago to ensure that parents at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City were aware that bacterial meningitis may have caused the sudden death of 8-year-old Steven Chilton, a second-grader. One official said school administrators learned from health officers at 3: 20 p.m. that meningitis, which is contagious, may have been a factor.

The staff worked quickly -- even holding up school buses -- to send notices home with students within a half-hour.

Yet two days later, Worthington administrators and health officials combined to bar the news media from a meeting at the school, where officials discussed with parents issues related to the meningitis scare.

These days, the media may be as unpopular as lawyers and politicians in the public's mind, so it was not surprising that parents applauded when officials ejected a TV camera crew from the meeting. But such defensiveness was no cause for celebration. Despite the perceptions, the press sheds light on events that the public has a need to know. And the boy's death, while especially tragic for the Worthington community, was news of immense interest and relevance to other county residents and parents.

The meeting was designated as a gathering for Worthington parents. The school's first responsibility is, indeed, to its family of students, parents and staff. But the school, and particularly the health department, have a duty to the larger community, including neighbors whose children may have been in contact with the boy.

Neighbors depend on reports from newspapers and television to stay abreast of the incident, in which meningitis apparently was not involved but was not altogether ruled out. School and health officials must remember that not every Worthington parent was able to attend the meeting.

Officials cannot treat public health concerns with the secrecy of pre-perestroika Russia. Especially in such emergencies, they should cooperate with news organizations and work to keep the public informed.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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