Friday, May 6, 2011

White Powder in Letters: DC Schools Say, "Nya, nya, you can't scare us!"

Someone is sending letters to Washington, D.C. schools with white powder in them. The letters, which also contain the typewritten message, "AL AQEDA-FBI [sic]," have arrived at at least 28 schools thus far, and four more letters have been intercepted. Authorities say that the substance inside them is not hazardous, although they haven't said what it is.

If you do a Google News search for "white powder schools" you will find numerous incidents over the last decade, plus a bunch involving various organizations, institutions, and even Dancing With the Stars. Apparently, something similar even happened in Washington schools last October.

Am I the only one who remembers a time when it would have been the furthest thing from someone's mind to try to scare people with cornstarch? Before the anthrax attacks of 2001, this just wasn't on anyone's radar screen -- not even the lunatic fringe. Since then, it seems like almost an epidemic.

In 2001, schools in Western Pennsylvania (and perhaps elsewhere -- I just happened to work in Western PA at the time) had to scramble over "white powders." A local supplier of science curriculum had a 5th grade science explorations unit which many districts used which asked students to identify various "mystery powders," all of them white. All of a sudden, this didn't seem like a good idea, and replacement units had to be created or purchased.

As far as I can tell from the news coverage of the latest incident, the level of panic occurring at the schools involved is extremely low. It looks like people opened the letters and notified the authorities, who took it seriously and came out to the schools. I'm not seeing reports of school personnel becoming hysterical or evacuating buildings. I'm not seeing any reaction from kids, which seems to indicate that most of them didn't know about it. One school did notice the letter before it came inside and left it outside -- that seems cautious without being a complete overreaction.

The thing is, if we panic every time someone does this, then the bozos who are doing it get what they want. This encourages future bozos to do the same thing. Would it be safer to evacuate every building where this happens? Maybe, maybe not. We may be at the point where the chances of someone getting hurt in the evacuation -- tripping, stepping on something, getting hit by lightning, being a crime victim, getting hit by a car -- are actually greater than the chances of someone getting hurt by a mystery powder in a letter.

You might be surprised to know that the same logic often applies to bomb threats in schools. Many schools do not routinely evacuate if they receive a bomb threat. They wait for the advice of the police and fire departments regarding the specific threat. That's because if you know you can disrupt school -- any school, but particularly your own school -- by phoning in a bomb threat, then this becomes a very attractive thing for kids to do to get out of exams and such. Add to this the risk that someone will phone in a bomb threat and then wait for everyone to start coming outside and do something to them there, and evacuating is not always the thing to do. It depends on the situation.

Often times parents, in particular, don't want to hear that not evacuating is the best thing. Our knee-jerk reaction is that we should evacuate kids if there is any risk or threat. The thing is, that may not be in the best of interests of the kids. If we actually did that, we could well spend every day going in and out of school buildings. Schools have to evaluate relative risk, just as parents do at home. We don't get everyone outside when our dirty ovens start to smoke at home, or every time we hear a funny noise in the night. In loco parentis means that schools must act with the same care that parents would at home, not that they must jump every time someone says "boo." It would be a lot easier, however, if people didn't think it was a good idea to say "boo" in the first place.


Colleen said...

A our town meeting last month we were talking about street lights and safety. It had been mentioned earlier that pedestrians felt safe crossing the streets under street lights, because they could see....but that cars couldn't reliably see the pedestrians, so it was a false sense of security. The goal of the town was to make the pedestrians actually be safer, not just feel safe.

A speaker actually got up and said that feeling safe was the most important thing!!! As far as I could tell, she really thought that if she felt safe, nothing bad would happen. I guess some parents feel that way. I just wish that when it turns out that they were wrong, that they wouldn't just blame others!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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