Without doubt, one of the better things to happen to Columbia County in 2006 was the opening of the new library in Evans. The facility, including the new Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center, along with the amphitheater and memorial gardens, has become the cultural focal point for the county.
But in recent weeks it also has become the focus of debate about how certain patrons are treated - specifically, special needs children.
The debate began on these pages with a Dec. 6 letter to the editor from Jennie Smith, of Evans, who complained that she was ordered by a library security guard to remove her autistic 5-year-old son from the library because he was having "a tantrum."
Long-time Library Board member Russ Holloman - who, coincidentally, is a family therapist - responded Dec. 20 with praise for Smith's use of the library, but noting that such facilities "are neither expected nor required to handle special-needs patrons."
The county's head librarian, Christina Rice, contended Dec. 27 that the child wasn't just having a "tantrum," but "had been screaming for 7-8 minutes," drawing complaints from patrons throughout the entire building. She added that Smith was asked only to take her son to the lobby, not to leave the building altogether.
As the number of special-needs children in the country continues to rise, this episode at the library is only a symptom of a greater issue with which schools continue to struggle. The difference is that federal policies dictate many of the guidelines for public schools and how special-needs pupils are accommodated; the feds haven't established such requirements for public libraries.
Even though not required, such policies are a good idea. The county's library board is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and Rice says establishment of those policies will be on the agenda.
While no child should have to suffer undue scrutiny or discrimination because of disabilities or special-needs status, that status also cannot be an excuse for allowing any single patron to disrupt a peaceful library experience for an entire building full of patrons.
A good, fair policy should help ensure such an experience for all.
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