Many years later I still do not know why I pulled the fire alarm at my high school. I was headed for the locker room from tennis practice, thinking about spring and girls and graduation. The next thing I knew, the alarm lever was in my hand. Startled, I let go. A familiar PONG-PONG-PONG reverberated up and down the corridors.
Was I rebelling against my hall monitor reputation? Did I crave a sense of danger? I have no idea. It was after school and I was apologetic. The principal let me off with no more than a mildly troubled look, as if he had just seen his priest buying Playboy.
A lot of us are mysteries to ourselves at that age, something we might reflect upon as we consider this year's rash of school violence. As parents, we have difficulty controlling our feelings of helplessness and our tendency to panic in the face of irrational behavior that threatens our children. The cycle is likely to repeat itself, with a great deal of class time lost, after school reopens in September and the next tragedy hits the 11 o'clock news.
Still, schools are much safer than we give them credit for. Our children will be in more danger in the family car on the way to the beach next month than they ever are in class, yet it is unlikely we will cancel that trip. Couldn't we show a similar commitment to learning and shrug off some of our wilder nightmares? Why not let principals give bomb threats the credence they deserve: Let police check the halls and broom closets but keep the students at their desks.
We do not know what produces teenage serial killers and have no proven way to deal with them. But we have seen what unfounded panic gets us: scared children, empty desks, delayed lessons and ill-considered discipline for students who do little more than lampoon the reigning paranoia. And the cold truth is that incidents such as the Columbine slaughter are the supreme exception; far more common is the problem of pranks: phony fire alarms, freaky rumors, and the cheapest prank of all, the telephoned bomb threat.
Bomb threats are, sadly, as firmly woven into American school life as PTA bake sales and senior class carwashes. The available, if meager, information indicates they are almost entirely the work of mischievous or addled adolescents who have no more intention of hurting anyone than I did the day I pulled the alarm.
Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms suggest that a bomb threat is, if we keep a clear head, a good sign. Of 590 school incidents recorded since 1995 by the ATF, everything from real bombs to suspicious lunch bags, only 10 have been preceded by a warning. In recent years in the Washington area, there has been only one report of a bomb threat that led to the discovery of a real bomb, and no one was hurt.
Principals usually decide whether to evacuate their schools after discussing the particulars with police. A scratchy teenage voice warning of a bomb on a warm spring day is taken less seriously than an adult with a specific grievance. But buildings are still frequently emptied for nothing. School administrators say they don't want students to worry, but children get their emotional cues from adults. If their principal evacuates at the first nasty word and allows panic-driven absences, students know they can indulge their fears. As we saw this year, if national news creates enough concern, even fourth-hand rumors out of nowhere can persuade school officials to curtail normal activities.
About this, we parents have little to say. We are not at school. The inconvenience and interrupted flow of learning are not something we experience or think much about.
Americans tell pollsters that improving schools is their number one concern, but our commitment to schools is a sometime thing. We care that our children get good grades and go to fashionable colleges. We are less concerned about the rigor of the classes that produce those grades. Schools are still as much child care enterprises as they are a ticket to the future. If our kids do not complain, and nobody is hurt during school hours, we are unlikely to think much about a school after we have made the decision to send them there.
I have nothing against parental peace of mind, but our love for it sometimes interferes with rational policy. Take the asbestos scares of the early 1990s. Despite expert opinion that the insulating material found in schools was best sealed up and left alone, fretful parents forced school districts to spend millions ripping it out and carting it away. The risk of dying from asbestos-related disease was less than being struck by lightning, but it made us feel better to know it was gone.
We would do better, I think, to shrug off our insecurities and let our children get on with their work. Learn-ing takes time and sustained attention. It is more important than how our stomachs feel when we flip on the radio and catch the end of a bulletin about trouble at a school.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is email@example.com.