Are we so inured to the pain of D.C. children that their problems no longer register with us? Here's why I ask.
Last week I participated in a "Day of Gratitude" at George Washington University Hospital, where we honored the D.C. Children's Grief and Loss Network, a coalition of professionals who respond to crises in the D.C. public schools. They had their hands full this school year. Not only did crisis responders handle a number of traumatic events involving deaths from accidents and illnesses, they also dealt with a homicide on the grounds of Anacostia Senior High School, a homicide of a student inside Ballou Senior High School and a homicide of a student that required grief assistance at Shaw Junior High and Walker-Jones Elementary School. Each murder made the news.
However, two events did not. Both involved suicides.
The individuals who killed themselves attended D.C. elementary schools: a sixth-grader at Barnard Elementary School and another at Moten Elementary School.
School board members, politicians and preachers are never at a loss for words. But they have been silent on children in the school system who believe their lives aren't worth living -- young children so tormented that they choose to put themselves to death.
This is what we have come to in 2004. A nation's capital, already accepting homicide as commonplace, is no longer shaken by a child's death, even when it is self-inflicted. Child suicides in the District don't cause the slightest stir. So it falls to grief counselors, alternating between thriving and burnout themselves, to rush to children traumatized by sudden death.
We are so toughened by our world of homicides that we no longer realize that some of the most frightening and darkest moments in the lives of District children involve experiences that fall short of dying, such as attending school.
According to a summary of a public hearing before the D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee on March 29, Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo Senior High School, testified that 11 months earlier a student was shot in the school's basement by someone who brought a gun into the building through an open door. Ballard said the doubling of surveillance cameras and new security doors in the building have improved school security. Asked about weapons in the school, Ballard said there are no weapons inside Cardozo, "that security guards recover weapons at doors quite frequently." Steve Tarason, principal at Wilson Senior High School, said that as of March, 10 knives had been recovered and one gun was discovered by a D.C. police officer outside school grounds. "He noted that 60 percent to 70 percent of weapons recovered at Wilson are recovered on Mondays, when students typically bring weapons to school to protect themselves from incidents that occur in the community over the weekend. He said it appears that most students carry weapons for safety, not for malicious intent."
Now, stay with me on this. Ballard and Tarason may not know it, but they are case-hardened principals. They feel victorious because weapons no longer make it past the doors of their schools. The fact that students are coming to school armed is treated as neither new nor interesting. Therein hangs the tragedy.
Our downward slide in expectations and standards doesn't stop with student deaths or the presence of weapons. The degradation extends to the protectors themselves.
At the same public hearing, Wendy Glenn Flood, an Eastern Senior High School parent and vice president of the Eastern Parent-Teacher Association, spoke of Eastern security guards taking students to the prom, buying alcohol for class trips and touching some female students.
Again, from the hearing report: "Ms. Flood provides professional service to corrections inmates and recently recognized a former client working as a security guard at Eastern."
In most school districts, that kind of behavior would make news and have parents and civic leaders up in arms. Not so in the District. Despite her bringing her concerns about security at Eastern to the attention of central administration, Flood said, there was no improvement.
Such insensitivity has consequences. The logical result of such habitual indifference is reflected in the quality of services we provide children. Millions of dollars have been squandered by second-rate officials in school central administration on a second-rate security program run by second-rate managers. Because we have come to think so little of our children, we saddle them with teachers and mid- and low-level administrators who zealously cling to jobs they couldn't get anywhere else because, truth be told, they wouldn't qualify.
A city that places a higher value on its children wouldn't stand for any of this. It wouldn't let grade school suicides go unnoticed. It wouldn't treat kids having weapons as an ordinary and customary event. It wouldn't let security guards get away with feeling up young girls. It wouldn't ignore our children with grievous wounds.
Those things could only happen in a city that is calloused by carnage and lost to shame. They happen here.