Friday, October 06, 2006

Protecting our schools

What is going on? Has the world gone mad?

Well, yes. And not just for the usual reasons. There's the war in Iraq, turbulence in the Middle East, nuclear muscle-flexing in Asia, global terrorism — all the usual signs and symptoms of malady in the human condition.

Then there's the likes of Charles Roberts, the 32-year-old psychotic who went on a rampage in a one-room Amish schoolhouse Monday, slaughtering five innocent little girls before turning his gun on himself.

The horrific incident in rural Lancaster County, Pa., once again drove home a point for people like us here on the North Fork: No place is safe.

We live in a quiet, rural area. Our kids go to nice schools, where things like this don't happen.

That's what we tell ourselves.

But things like this didn't used to happen in Nickel Mines, Pa., either. Or in Essex, Vt., where a gunman shot and killed a teacher preparing for class in an elementary school this fall. Or in Bailey, Colo., where a man police described as a drifter took six teenage girls hostage, sexually assaulted some of them, and killed one, before killing himself. Or in Hillsborough, N.C., where a deranged ex-student opened fire at a high school, injuring two.

Every one of these incidents in the past several weeks took place at schools in small towns — towns like ours, where crime rates are low and people feel secure in their homes. And where parents didn't give the possibility of armed men invading the local schoolhouse a second thought. Until now.

No place is safe from the madness and violence in this world. Not even a place like Lancaster County, a little piece of God's green earth where the Amish, consciously rejecting modern culture, set themselves apart to live and work in peace. If Amish country is susceptible to the madness of 21st-century America, what of Mattituck, Southold or Orient?

The violent incidents in schools around the country since the new term began share another disturbing characteristic. Other than the incident involving a student who killed his principal in a rural Wisconsin town last month, this new wave of violence has been at the hands of intruders, not students. This reverses an established trend: School violence had been an "inside" problem up till now. The vast majority of the 400 or so murders in schools over the past dozen years were committed by students.

The past month put a new face on school violence. The face of a drifter, a madman, a vengeful ex-boyfriend, the face of a stranger forcing his way through the doors of our school buildings, attacking our children and our teachers, for reasons the rest of us will never comprehend. Senseless, random violence.

The new threat weighs heavily on the minds of school superintendents on the North Fork this week, from Orient to Riverhead. They're trying to figure out how to react appropriately to what's been going on, trying to make sure they're doing everything they can to prevent the unthinkable from happening here. Should all schools have security guards? Metal detectors? Should doors be kept locked? How can we protect our children?

"We think we're so far removed from the big city that we're immune," said Oysterponds superintendent Stuart Rachlin, whose Main Road, Orient, elementary school suddenly feels exposed and potentially vulnerable. "But no one is immune." He and other local superintendents are thinking and talking about tightening security at their buildings, where doors are generally left unlocked and entry to the premises monitored by school office personnel.

School officials know that they can only do so much. There is the chilling realization that, as Greenport superintendent Charles Kozora puts it, "I don't think you can really do anything that's going to curtail a madman."

Sure, there are some basic precautions that schools can take, like having classroom doors that can be locked from the inside — which Greenport installed just a few years ago — so that the school can go into "lockdown" if there's an intruder or other threat of violence.

But you can't prevent someone from shooting into the classrooms from outside, notes Dr. Kozora. Denise Civiletti

"What do you do? Install bullet proof glass? And how about the kids on the playground? How do you protect them?"

Most security measures simply give people a false sense of security, he believes.

And at the same time, they turn a school campus into a prison-like environment — there's at least one school up-island where a barbed wire fence surrounds the property, whose driveway entrance has a guardhouse. No one enters the building — theoretically — without passing through another guarded checkpoint, complete with metal detectors. Sounds like the county jail complex in Riverside. Is that the school environment we want our kids to grow up in?

Recent events make you realize "it can happen anywhere," said Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent James McKenna. "You can have the best plans in place and there are no guarantees. At any given moment, at any given time, anything can happen."

That's a unnerving thought. But it's an honest assessment of today's reality. Ours is a violent society. Popular culture — video games, movies and music — and the media are rife with violent images. It's no longer enough to report that the limousine struck by an allegedly drunk driver on the LIE last year had a dashboard camera that recorded the crash that took two innocent lives, and that the video was shown to the jury this week. No. Now we have to post the jarring video on the Internet for all to see, as Newsday did this week, so we can all bear first-hand witness to a nightmare.

Violence — from places around the corner to places around the globe — is so pervasive that we've become inured to it. We have raised an entire generation of children inured to violence. We have probably only just begun to see the fruits of that upbringing.