Thank you, Spencer B. Coleman of Silver Spring, for nailing a very big, very bad problem right on its head.

Spencer lives in a large garden apartment complex near the intersection of U.S. Rte. 29 and Briggs Chaney Road, in the far northern part of Silver Spring. A lot of families with young kids live in the complex. And a lot of those families are headed by young adults who don't have much support (such as spouses or parents or in-laws) to fall back on.

The result: kids are often left to fend for themselves, long before they're old enough to do a very good job of fending. Spencer saw a gutwrenching example of this last week.

"At 8 Tuesday morning," he writes, "my four-year-old daughter and I set out for nursery school and work, respectively. By the time we reached my car, we saw a little boy standing in the middle of the parking lot, crying and looking confused.

"He had either missed, or was too early for, his school bus, which stops on the other side of the street. I saw no bus or kids at the stop. His parents had taken off for work and left the little guy alone . . . .

"After a few minutes, a couple drove up to check on the guy . . . . Between the three of us, we found that he was in the first grade at Fairland Elementary School. We figured out where the school was, and agreed that I would drive him there.

"I left him in care of a teacher after explaining what had happened. She casually told me that he was in the right place, and took him off to his class."

Thank goodness the boy didn't spend the day in the parking lot -- and thank goodness that no one abducted him from the parking lot. He was a sitting duck for a kidnaper, a weirdo or a combination. How his parents could expose a first-grader to that kind of risk is beyond me.

But let's consider the larger issue here: What the well-meaning Spencer Colemans of this world should do in a case like this.

I've talked to a number of school officials, in Montgomery County and elsewhere. Their advice is not to bring the child to school yourself if you're in the same situation as Spencer Coleman, but to turn him over to the police instead.

That's for the protection of the Spencers of this world as well as for the protection of the kids they're trying to help.

If Spencer Coleman had been in an accident on the way to Fairland, and the child had been injured or killed, Spencer would have been responsible. Also, it's possible under certain circumstances that the person dropping the child at school could be suspected of kidnapping.

Calling the police won't take you any longer than driving the frightened kid the few blocks to school. And it'll be a lot safer for everybody concerned.

Every year, I receive a form letter in the mail, offering me the chance to buy tickets to the policeman's ball. Every year, I sign on the dotted line.

I've never attended. What I'm doing by writing my check is buying insurance against a muted inner voice. It whispers that I'd better pay, or the cops won't respond to my address if there's ever an emergency there.

Now, I have absolutely no evidence that the police keep any sort of "didn't-pay" list. And I'm not trying to suggest that there is such a list.

But if you've ever had the same muted voice whispering in your ear, make room for the story that Martha Paley Francescato of Potomac told me.

Martha said she was at home one Tuesday night when the doorbell rang at about 7:50 p.m. Her husband answered. On the doorstep was a woman in uniform who announced that she was collecting for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.

Martha's husband said, gee, sorry, not this year, can't give to everybody, wish I could, sorry. And he started to shut the door. Just before it closed, he and Martha both heard the B-CC solictor say:

"Don't call us if you need us."

Martha's husband reopened the door and glared at the woman in amazement. She was walking away by now -- and she kept on walking away, without saying anything.

Asked to comment, B-CC chief David Dwyer said:

"That's enormously degrading to our organization. If I find out who it is, there'll be some harsh discipline put out. What somebody does or does not contribute is his or her own business and we won't check our files before answering an emergency call. There's no charge for our service. It simply won't be tolerated. And if it's true, it won't be condoned."

Glad to hear those words, chief. But sorry that Martha and her husband heard the words of the B-CC solicitor. It's remarks like hers that cause muted inner voices.