“Safety first” was taught to a generation of children in eras past, and remains a top priority for parents, schools and society. Back in the day, children cowered under their desks to prepare for nuclear attack; today, they hunker down in hallways braced for tornadoes.
Yet today’s kids face threats never imagined, from inside and out, as seen in recent headlines. And how we react to them is telling.
Wednesday evening, Gainesville High school informed law enforcement officials about an undisclosed threat written on a bathroom wall. As a result, officials swept the school for dangers and made students check in the next day under tighter security measures. That is standard procedure, and local officials handled it well. The key is to take such dangers seriously when warranted, keep everyone calm and respond properly without overreacting.
This doesn’t seem to have been in the recent case in Upson County when an autistic fourth-grader admitted to scrawling “bone thrat” on a bathroom wall and was charged with terroristic threats. That’s similar to the case of the Baltimore-area second-grader suspended for chewing his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. Common sense tells us Pop Tarts can’t shoot, and 9-year-olds who can’t spell “bomb” aren’t able to make one.
Author and columnist Lenore Skenazy, the “free-range kid” advocate has compiled a list of “Top 10 zero tolerance follies” like this. She says officials play a disaster movie in their heads when such threats are found, fantasy overcoming reality.
Such imagined dangers seem to be everywhere. The Atlanta downtown connector recently was shut down for two hours so SWAT teams could detonate a suspicious device that turned out to be a camera placed by a Georgia State student as part of an art project. Before 2001, a plastic pipe taped to an overpass would have been taken down, inspected and discarded. This time, thousands were inconvenienced and the student faced possible charges.
It seems silly, but if we put ourselves in officials’ shoes, we can understand their dilemma. School and law enforcement leaders must walk a fine line in a post-9/11 era of heightened awareness. Enough incidents have resulted in violence to justify not shrugging them all off. Better to face ridicule than tragedy and err on the side of caution.
And yet, amid these benign threats lurks a real one much more dangerous to children. All of a sudden, measles are back on the march, more than 100 cases confirmed nationwide, after a growing number of parents declined to have their children inoculated.
Those from the “duck and cover” cold war era remember when the trinity of childhood diseases — mumps, measles and chickenpox — were a common rite of passage. Over the years, vaccines helped make them rare and eradicate the lifelong health dangers they can pose.
Yet some parents believe childhood immunizations can carry dangerous side effects, among them fears they lead to autism, a claim refuted by most medical experts. But like school officials who default to the worst-case scenarios over threats written on a wall, some parents see measles shots as a greater danger than the virus they target.
This clash opens a debate between the need for public safety and protection of individual rights. Two potential presidential candidates, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, already have been chastised for suggesting parents should be free to exercise such choice.
It’s clear the danger to public health posed by measles should trump fear of the vaccines based on little more than anecdotal evidence of their ill effects. Parents should choose to immunize their kids, for their sake and others. And public school districts should require such shots if children are to be enrolled.
Yet we also shouldn’t blithely dismiss parents’ freedom to make decisions about their kids’ health. Everyone wants what is best for children, but that traditionally has been the role of parents, not government, to make that call. Parents who feel strongly about avoiding vaccines should accept the consequences and home-school their kids while keeping them away from others, out of common courtesy. Those who choose to vaccinate but stagger the schedule of shots to minimize the side effects should be allowed to do so within reason.
Whenever an overriding public concern trumps individual freedom, it should be thought through carefully. Otherwise, our society may become one in which such liberties are too easily swept aside for the “good of the state.”
In the big picture, we should ask: What are we frightened of? Which is a bigger threat: terrorism and the horrors of random violence, or the more insidious danger posed by untreated diseases?
In H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic “War of the Worlds,” the Martians who invade earth are “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” — bacteria that kill them slowly from within. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. It’s likely not a pipe bomb on an overpass that will kill us but a deadly virus that can resist “man’s devices” delivered by a syringe.
We can’t keep children safe all the time, as certain politicians have promised. Life involves risk. All we can do is be a little wiser to address the real threats we face to keep future generations safe and healthy.