In the coarsened, unforgiving society the United States has become, many of us seem to have lost sight of the fact that a 14-year-old is a child.
In the wake of the recent death of Kenwood High School freshman Anna Marie Stickel, my e-mail box filled with messages quickly blaming the girl for her lack of "personal responsibility" and her parents for their failure to control her behavior. Many were quick to absolve Amtrak, the school system or anyone with power of the slightest blame for yet another fatality on a Maryland railroad track.
I don't buy it.
The railroads, the schools and state and local government may not be legally liable when children die on the tracks, but such deaths represent a collective failure of adults to protect the young.
If the fatality in Middle River had involved an adult, it would be easy to conclude it was a case of a trespasser who should have known better. But while Anna certainly was breaking the law, she could not have been expected to know better. She was a child. And she was raised in a community where the use of the tracks by children has been an open secret for decades.
Blaming the child and parents for such a fatality sure makes life easier. If we can convince ourselves of that, the community has no responsibility. There's no reason not to just turn on the tube and zone out.
But it takes a pretty self-satisfied mother or father to condemn Anna's parents for the girl's lapse in judgment. How many of us can really say our lectures, admonitions and expert child-raising are more powerful than the kind of peer example Anna saw day after day?
It doesn't appear Anna's parents were getting much help from the school either. Kenwood students told me they heard little or nothing from the school administration about the dangers of the tracks.
I received an e-mail from a woman named Felicia, who was among those quick to assign responsibility to Anna for her failure to make a "mature" decision. But Felicia also reported that when she attended Kenwood in the 1990s, the school held regular assemblies at which the danger of the tracks was the top subject.
If Anna's schoolmates are to be believed, those assemblies are a thing of the past. I tried to get a comment from Kenwood's principal, Paul Martin, but he didn't respond to a direct message or those relayed through the central office. The Baltimore County school system didn't get back to me with an answer to the question of what Kenwood officials had done to drive home the message that today's trains are more dangerous than ever.
Let's be clear about this: Kenwood is no more than two blocks from several well-known gaps in Amtrak's fences. Many of its students live in neighborhoods across the tracks. If the school administrators haven't been warning students about the dangers of the tracks, that's a serious oversight on their part. The parents of Middle River have a right to expect more.
Then there's Amtrak. Whenever someone dies on the tracks, railroads are quick to point out that the victims are trespassers and to wail about how many miles of tracks there are in the United States and how expensive it would be to protect them all.
But the fact is that most of those miles of track pose little threat to children or anyone else. Middle River is different. There are about two miles of track between Rossville Boulevard and Martin Boulevard that run between neighborhoods and schools. In some spots along that stretch, there isn't even a chain link fence to keep people off the tracks. Perhaps the victims matter little to Amtrak, but every time someone is killed on its tracks, thousands of its customers have to sit through long delays. Protect them if nobody else.
It's long past time that the people with the power to bring about change in Middle River and other railroad communities stop pointing fingers at others and step forward and say what they will do to protect the kids.
Who should take the lead? I'd nominate County Executive Jim Smith and the two county councilmen from the east side.
They ought to invite students, parents, educators, police, county public works officials, state transportation officials, Amtrak and others to a summit at the high school to work on solutions in that two-mile death stretch. Each group should be enjoined to leave recriminations behind and focus on one question: What can we do better?
Because they all can - and must - if they have a shred of decency.