IN THE HALLWAYS of Moten Elementary School, high on a hill in Southeast Washington, an incident that never happened -- the fabricated rape report of a 12-year-old girl -- has put the lie to something else: the stereotype of parents in lower-income neighborhoods not involving themselves in the activities of their public schools. That the child's account turned out to be untrue did, of course, relieve the worst fears of parents, teachers, administrators, legal authorities and the children. But the concern it generated -- and the side effects of a resulting new wave of neighborhood activity in the school -- are as significant as they are welcome.
First, there was the enormous response of parents and neighbors to the original report. More than 400 people turned out for a meeting -- organized not by authorities but by concerned parents who outlined a number of ways to beef up security at the school.
One of the more obvious ways -- but one of the more difficult to put into effect -- is increased surveillance. Guards and other employees cost money, and there are not enough as it is to do the job in the city's 170 schools. So what did the parents and neighbors do? In what officials have said is the strongest city outpouring of parental concern for school security, they organized a volunteer patrol for the halls and playgrounds of Moten.
Two parents have been stationed at the front door, to intercept visitors and report them to the school office. Still others have been routinely checking darkened classrooms, washrooms and hallways. Groups also plan to be on hand for sports events, dances and other activities.
Nothing new here? Perhaps not to parents in certain traditionally "involved" neighborhoods. But at Moten as elsewhere, the parental presence is coming to mean more than stronger security. Teachers and students, classroom discipline and morale, benefit from a new feeling of safety. Parents learn firsthand the ins and outs of daily life in the schools, from the difficulties of teachers to the physical shortcomings of their building and the behavior of children.
How long will the volunteer effort last? No one can know, though time may take its toll on this corps of helpers who are donating their time and efforts. Still, though they receive no pay, there is compensation for the entire school neighborhood in knowing that parental participation can pay dividends in security, spirit and seriousness of purpose in and around the classrooms.