No innocent threats in schoolyards today

April 15, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

YOUR fourth-grader makes a list of kids to invite to her birthday party, puts it in her book bag and goes to school.

What happens if she leaves it on her desk and some child who's not invited picks it up and feels hurt? What if a teacher finds the list and wonders what it means?

On the way home from school, your sixth-grader is beaten up by other boys. What if he threatens revenge on his tormentors? What if he puts his threat down on paper?

We are familiar with these episodes of school life, of growing up. Sometimes we were the recipient of hurt or abuse, sometimes we might have given it. We should have known better, done something differently, our elders would admonish us.

Today, the implications of such incidents are far more sinister. Times have changed, sensitivities and experiences have changed the way society responds.

A paper with the names of kids written down can be viewed as a "hit list" for violence. A boy who's bullied and vows to get even could be a dangerous sociopath. A girl who becomes upset by being left off the party list might be a ticking timebomb.

In most cases, such fears are unfounded and may lead to unwarranted overreaction.

Yes, there should be some way for an adult to step in and deal with these situations in a comforting, caring, reassuring manner. But that is not going to happen a lot of the time.

Injustices given and received will be a part of life, in childhood and beyond.

But the horrors of deadly violence wrought by children on other children in our schools has brought us to the point where we can no longer ignore possible early signals of harmful rage.

And so we have police called to an elementary school because a birthday invitation list is found. Another child is arrested for saying "I'm going to kill you," or some such schoolboy threat.

The county school security officer is criticized for not informing police soon enough of threats made by a student to others. And then he is accused of overreacting by calling police instead of letting the school handle another case.

The student council at Westminster High offers a reward for anonymous tips of violence and drug dealing.

Some people are concerned about the ethics of encouraging snitching or paying kids for doing what they ought to do. Others firmly support the idea in the hope that it might head off another school tragedy.

There are no definitive solutions to this perplexity that I know of.

We can all pray for parents and teachers and school counselors to be open and sensitive to the needs of children, and to wisely deal with these problems.

The same is true for the entire community. But that has always been our hope and it is not always fulfilled. Human judgment is ever frail and imperfect.

So we turn to programs and policies and try to make them more effective.

Carroll schools have a policy of automatically suspending students making serious threats. There's supposed to be a referral to a counselor for violence assessment. It seems reasonable.

But each case involves a judgment of how "serious" the threat is and what the potential for action by the student is. In some cases, the offense is sufficient to lead to criminal/juvenile charges.

Only a few years ago, there was a call for "flexibility" and "understanding" of a kid who had been caught with a tiny penknife on the keychain of his book bag and another who had a can of Mace spray in her locker as protection at an after-school job.

Now the pendulum of opinion has shifted. While we may strenuously argue for special treatment of our own children caught by the rules, there's less chance of sympathy in the outside community.

Few of us are willing to take the chance. Violent acts in distant schools have sensitized us to the possibility that it could happen here. Copycat incidents seem more likely. Threats that once passed for schoolyard bravado carry the greater potential for actualization.

While firearms are typically involved in prominent incidents, there's no assurance that other weapons could not be used in other schools with similarly tragic results. Threats have to be taken seriously, even absent a lethal device.

Heightened vigilance by everyone is the defense we must fall back on. Intervention to thwart a potential threat to children's safety has to be encouraged, or at least better tolerated than it might have been in the past.

To encourage public involvement, Carroll authorities are publicizing a telephone hotline for tips about threats of violence in the schools and in the community. It's a good idea.

Callers don't have to leave their name, just specific information about the threat or violent act. The calls are recorded but regularly monitored by an investigator in the state's attorney's office.

It's not for emergency calls, which should be made to 911. But it can provide information for authorities to evaluate and determine the appropriate response.

The toll-free number is 866-332-7363.

No one wants to traumatize a schoolchild with overbearing accusations. We must still rely on the discretion and tact of school and law enforcement officials.

But gone are the days when we could fall back on the comforting rationalization that "it's just a kid" or that "everyone goes through that experience."

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