Public schools cannot operate without the trust of the public they serve.
It is a disturbing sign when that trust can so easily be shaken by one man with a microphone.
Austin Rhodes is a good friend, and has been for a long time. Often when I say that, the joking reaction is, Oh, you admit it?
Such jokes are because of the relationship a talk-show host has with his audience. Some love him, some hate him, and even the ones who love him refuse to admit it. But everybody listens as long as its interesting.
It certainly was interesting Monday when Austin interviewed the mother of a 5-year-old victim of child molestation. The woman works with Austin; thatgives him a biased view, just as many would say my marriage to an elementary school principal colors my opinions.
Austins co-worker, who wasnt identified as such on the air, said the 12-year-old offender was being put back in the same school as her son after getting weak punishment from Juvenile Court Judge - and now Superior Court judge - Jim Blanchard. (Blanchard also served as the Columbia County School Boards attorney until his judicial appointment.)
Then, Austin said the offender was being transferred to another elementary school. Austin goaded parents to call principals, School Board members, Blanchard and legislators to raise such a ruckus that the law regarding juvenile offenders would be changed so such offenders could never return to school, and that this offender would be identified to protect other children.
First things first: The victimization did not occur at school. In fact, it occurred over several months as the older child babysat the younger child. There is strong evidence to suggest that the victimization didnt come to the familys attention until teachers noticed changes in the 5-year-olds behavior.
Juvenile authorities investigated. The older childs parents kept him out of school for a while, and then he returned, awaiting trial; an unrelated school infraction earned his removal, and soon after he went to court.
At the request of the victims family - who also is related to the offender - Blanchard went easy on the pre-teen, ordering probation and treatment and, further, ordering him not to be in unsupervised contact with younger children.
The school system didnt get that order from the court until Monday afternoon; the 12-year-old had been kept out of school until then. Assistant Superintendent Charles Nagle, fielding a flurry of calls from hysterical parents fearing an influx of child molesters, says he interprets that order to mean the kid wont be put back in elementary school.
You know what? That should satisfy everyone - unless we believe our schools are unsafe, with predators roaming the halls. Austin spread that impression by keeping the name of the schools secret and whipping up the fear factor.
I want everyone to panic, Austin actually said. This is the thing I aspire to do in this town.
Well, I still live in this town, unlike Austin. All of my children attend public schools in Columbia County, unlike Austins. What I aspire to do is to keep people informed, not inflamed.
Our children are safe in Columbia County schools. Those schools are operated by professionals who are taught to recognize the signs of victimization, and are required by law to report it.
Our schools are good schools, as proven by experience and through trust earned by people who take care of my own children.
If you have children in the system and are willing to take the word of a stranger on the radio and not trust the people who lovingly care for your children every day, then you should immediately remove those children and send them to private school.
With Austins kid.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com.)
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