When It Comes to Dogs at Schoolyards, One Parent Sinks Her Teeth in and Isn't Letting Go

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 18, 2008

W as it the time a golden retriever jumped up and snatched a sandwich from her son's hand at a neighborhood soccer game, startling and scaring the 6-year-old? Was it the incident when dogs outside Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda jumped at her daughter? Or is there some unknown dog trauma in Danuta Wilson's past that explains her crusade?

Parents at Westbrook say there must be some rational reason for Wilson's drive to get Montgomery County to stop parents from taking dogs along when they drop off or fetch their children at school.

"It's been several years, and she's worked her way up from the PTA to animal control to the superintendent of schools, the parks department, the police -- she got the county dog officers to come to school and check everyone's tags and vaccinations," says Kevin McNeely, a patent lawyer who occasionally takes his bulldog along as he walks his child to Westbrook. "Danuta even followed me around with a camera and took pictures."

"The general feeling is there's an agenda there, and we don't know what it is," says Renee Kannapell, co-president of Westbrook's parents association. "I am not a dog owner, but she's the only person in the entire community who's upset about this. We're focused on trying to pass the schools budget in full, and she's turning attention to something that's not a problem: People walk their kids with their dogs to school every morning, and nobody minds."

"One person can make a difference," John F. Kennedy famously said, and no one can possibly accuse Wilson of failing to take up that challenge.

Her e-mails go on for thousands of words. She has become a household name in the offices of school systems throughout the Washington area. She hammered at the Montgomery school board so long and so hard that it issued a formal decision on her request that signs be posted banning dogs from school property: The board concurred with the animal control department's view that the existing rules and signs are "more than adequate" and kicked the issue to that department for any further consideration. Whew.

But Wilson is not going away. By her own account, she and Westbrook's principal communicate about the dog issue at least once a week. She plans to appeal to the state Board of Education. She's meeting with elected officials. She has canvassed 36 Montgomery elementary schools and says she has found a wide variety of policies and practices. From her report: "Carderock Springs -- Dogs not allowed during school hours. Arcola -- 'we cannot tell people not to bring dogs.' Rock Creek Valley -- 'it has become quite a problem.' "

(Policies also vary by county. Fairfax says animals are not permitted on school grounds at any time; Prince George's has no written policy and leaves it to each principal to handle the issue.)

Wilson says she is far from alone in her desire to ban dogs from school grounds. It's just that most parents are wary of public association with the issue, because they don't want to be seen as anti-dog. Indeed, several Westbrook parents told me they're thrilled about Wilson's crusade -- as long as I promised not to publish their names.

"The school system knows it's a problem, but they don't want to deal with it," says Wilson, who works at Georgetown University administering a scholarship program. "Everybody is afraid to discuss this because they don't want to speak against their neighbors. And I am really only interested in the policy, not in confronting other parents."

Whatever her interest, Wilson's actions come off as plenty confrontational. Most Westbrook parents I contacted wanted to make sure I got two things straight: They didn't want to be quoted by name, and they think Wilson is a . . . well, if they want the name-calling in the paper, they're going to have to step up and attach their names.

Curiously, most dog owners I spoke to say they think there is some merit to Wilson's argument.

"This is not out of character for the type of community we have in Bethesda," McNeely says. "We have a lot of Type A people who latch on to issues like this. And she's right, children do come first. So since the principal asked people to voluntarily keep their dogs away from school property, I've complied completely, and so have other parents."

Then what's the problem? Some parents still take dogs to school, and some kids are genuinely frightened. And despite her gale-force agitation on the issue, Wilson has pricked a real cultural sore point -- one so sensitive that an open, reasoned debate seems almost impossible.

Where dog lovers see taking their pet to school as a friendly, even comforting piece of community life, those who fear or don't care for dogs see an aggressive intrusion into their peace of mind. The simple, courteous solution would be to keep dogs well away from school. And the simple, courteous way to get there would be for Wilson to spend more energy winning people over to her view than waging war against the bureaucracy. You won't find change in the regs; it comes from below.


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