Last week Falls Church News Press columnist Michael Gardner criticized Falls Church City public school officials for the recent use of police dogs to sniff backpacks at George Mason High School.
Gardner drew a stark picture of the use of drug dogs, saying “The incidences of misuse of dogs; where the animals caused elementary-age children to involuntarily urinate themselves, or poorly trained dogs bit students, or vaguely documented alerts led to strip searches of teenage girls, should give parents pause.”
Huh? What’s he talking about? That’s not what’s going on at George Mason. As Gardner himself points out, in the recent search at GMHS, school officials kept the dogs separated from the students. The students were instructed to bring their backpacks to the hallway — and then return to class. Then the dogs were brought in to sniff the backpacks. When a dog alerted on a backpack, the student owner was called to the school office to discuss the contents of the backpack, and the student’s parents were contacted. The dogs did not come in contact with the students – and thus, there was no occasion for the parade of horribles Gardner suggests. No dog bites, no urination, no strip searches. Given the care that was taken to keep the dogs away from the students, I believe it is unfair to suggest that FC school officials may begin to use dogs in an irresponsible fashion.
Mr. Gardner also makes the charge that the search was poorly executed, but in my view, the opposite seems true. First, GMHS Principal Tyrone Byrd gave students and parents fair notice some time ago that dogs would be used to search for drugs. Then, when proceeding with the search, he used trained narcotics detection dogs to conduct sniff tests, a technique blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court almost 30 years ago. In addition, Byrd has kept parents apprised with email messages providing significant detail. In my view, that kind of forethought and follow-through indicate good execution, not the reverse.
Byrd is right not to report the detailed results of the search to the community, notwithstanding Mr. Gardner’s call for a report. Although some may want to know the details, privacy considerations dictate otherwise. Sharing such information with anyone other than need-to-know school administrators, school board officials, and law enforcement officials could subject the schools and City to even more lawsuits than we already face in other areas. Given the City’s experience with recent litigation, Byrd is to be commended for avoiding more of it. [As Gerald Pressman points out in his comment below, it may be in order for Byrd to report generalities, such as numbers, percentages, or funding of the costs. Personal information, however, should remain confidential unless release is required at some point -- for example, as a matter of law enforcement.]
Let’s be honest – we have drug issues at GMHS, and it is the duty of school officials to deal with them. The safeguards Mr. Gardner prefers — teachers, parental communications, attendance polices, health screenings, and counseling programs — are all good and necessary, but they do not serve the purpose of keeping drugs out of school in the first place. For that purpose, the use of drug dogs to sniff backpacks while students are in class may well be the most effective and least threatening technique available. It provides universal scrutiny on an equal basis, provides deterrence going forward, and avoids physical threat.
If there are alternative methods to be considered, great, but they must be effective and efficient. We cannot afford for school officials’ time and attention to be inordinately consumed by the few students who bring drugs to school, to the detriment of the many who stay away from drugs and just want to get a good education. Given the availability of a tool like trained drug dogs which can sniff hundreds of backpacks in minutes, it is reasonable for school officials to use them.
As a parent of a GMHS student, I appreciate the work of Principal Byrd and other school officials to keep drugs out. It’s one of the most important duties they have, and I urge them to continue their vigilant efforts to accomplish it.
By GEORGE BROMLEY
Falls Church Times Staff
March 23, 2011
“It’s the latest, it’s the greatest, it’s the library!”
That song, which is well over 40 years old, came to my mind today when I thought about the impact of the proposed budget cuts on the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. Not so long ago the tune still held true here, but now it would seem an appropriate local lyric would be “It’s cut, it’s shut, that’s our library!”
Actually, though cut last year and facing further cuts this year, it’s not entirely shut, but long-time library board member John Lawrence warned at last Saturday’s town hall meeting that the potential loss of state aid, which provides 10% of the facility’s budget, could signal “the beginning of the end.”
That might take a few years, but the trend line is well established. Last year the weekly hours were reduced from 68 to 64, due to Sunday closings. Sunday hours will return under the proposed FY 12 budget, but the total number of hours will drop to 55 due to later openings and earlier closings during the week.
Shorter library hours will mean further staff cuts. Six other city departments are scheduled to have one position either eliminated or reduced to part-time. However, the library will lose two part-time librarians, one part-time library assistant, one part-time page, and see three other positions have their hours reduced.
“It’s a huge, huge hit,” said Mr. Lawrence. “You may say they were part-time, but that’s what most library work is. I can’t think of any year in the last three when we haven’t had staffing cuts. People who’ve been here 20-25 years have left and their positions haven’t been filled.”
More than hours and staff will be cut. The book budget will be reduced. The periodical collection cut in half, with the 21 foreign language publications especially hard hit. The local history room, now open three days a week, will be closed except by appointment. Library expansion, long deferred, likely will be pushed back once again.
“I want to make it clear, the library board hates this,” said Mr. Lawrence. So do I.
The library is one of Falls Church’s most popular institutions, routinely breaking circulation records. More than 25,000 people now have Falls Church library cards, including 92% of the City’s residents. Over 1,000 children participated in the library’s Summer Reading Program. For the third consecutive year the library was designated one of America’s Star Libraries by the Library Journal.
“It’s one of the markers that sets us apart,” said Vice Mayor Dave Snyder, upon receiving the library’s annual report in January. Johannah Barry, Council liaison to the library, called it a “small organization, large in heart, that provides extraordinary service.” Indeed it does, even in the face of the reductions imposed in recent years, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for the library to maintain its stellar reputation.
If you believe that the library is facing more than its fair share of reductions, speak out at the upcoming public hearings, either next Monday or on April 11, or at the town hall meeting on April 16. Alternatively, forward written comments via email@example.com. To support the library directly, please consider contributing to the Mary Riley Styles Library Foundation Trust.
By ANNETTE HENNESSEY
Falls Church Times Staff
November 19, 2010
Our family went to see Les Miserables at George Mason High School last night and I have some advice for you: Run, don’t walk, to buy your ticket for this show. Strong leads, melodic orchestra, fabulous cast, and professional sets combine to make this a sophisticated, entertaining evening for only $8. The students had amazing stage presence, and sound and projection were excellent. Effectively using lighting and screens, the staging matched the students’ performances. Costuming was professional and in keeping with the musical’s setting.
Given the size of George Mason High School, Pamela Ricker has done a masterful job of maximizing the pool of talent for a very ambitious musical. I have to say, it was as enjoyable as any London or Broadway production I’ve seen … including Les Miserables!
For less than the price of a movie ticket, you can enjoy local theater at its best (and the Harry Potter movie will be around for a while). So come see what a small high school can do. Tickets are on sale at George Mason High School both Friday and Saturday nights at 6:00 pm with the auditorium doors opening at 6:30 p.m. The show begins at 7:00 p.m.
Please note that the show will be reviewed by the Cappies, the area student- theater criticism program, on Friday, November 19, which means there will be 50 fewer seats available than usual. For more information on Cappies, visit www.cappies.com.
By GEORGE SOUTHERN
Falls Church Times Columnist
September 29, 2010
Yes, I knew the MAN ABOUT TOWN column I wrote on Monday would be controversial, and also something of a “scoop.” And so it was. But I didn’t realize they would shoot the messenger.
I broke the news that the City Council, School Board, and Planning Commission were considering purchasing property in Hillwood Square for a new school. And I hypothesized that the plan might be to build a new high school and middle school there and sell the existing facilities adjacent to the West Falls Church Metro to developers. Implicit in such action is that the school buildings would be razed.
For my efforts, I’ve been maligned by several of the City’s leading citizens. Barry Buschow, whom I respect, opined that I fabricated the whole thing. Lindy Hockenberry, who has doubted me before (but ultimately conceded that I was correct about the City’s former segregation policy), stated in so many words that she doesn’t believe the explanation she asked for and received from me.
School Board Chair Joan Wodiska delivered a statement to City Council Monday night and then circulated it widely as a press release. It begins:
On September 27th, the Falls Church Times ran a story entitled, “What? Tear Down Our New School?” Among a number of inaccuracies, the story incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.
And so now I rise to speak in my own defense.
First, Ms. Wodiska incorrectly characterizes my column in the Falls Church Times as a “story.” That suggests a news report, whereas I was writing an opinion column, also known as an “op-ed piece.” When the Falls Church Times runs a “story,” it is reporting the news. How to tell the difference? A news story would never have a headline that reads “MAN ABOUT TOWN,” which is in fact how all my column headlines begin. The School Board statement left that off my headline and so concealed what otherwise would be obvious: this was not a “story” but rather an opinion column.
Ms. Wodiska refers to “a number of inaccuracies” in my column but specifies only one: “the story incorrectly suggested that City officials were discussing tearing down Mary Ellen Henderson.”
Here’s what I said: “Maybe that’s why the City Council, the School Board, and the Planning Commission held a top-secret meeting last week to discuss land acquisition. Because you can’t knock down the schools until new ones are built.”
That statement begins with a conjecture, clearly labeled as such. The rest of the sentence is fact: those City officials certainly did hold a “top-secret” meeting last week to discuss land acquisition.
Now, where in the world did I get the idea that “City officials” might be discussing the possibility of selling the high school and middle school property? Did I fabricate it out of whole cloth? No, I read a “guest commentary” last March in the Falls Church News-Press by then City Councilman Dan Maller, who wrote:
“Our high school (and middle school) sit on the most valuable piece of property in the area. The development potential of 30 acres at the West Falls Church Metro is enormous. The natural response is: where would we put our high school? My answer is that we could not find a more expensive piece of property, so we would find property somewhere in or around the City, and the money earned from the endeavor would finance not only the acquisition of alternative property, but likely a significant portion of the construction cost of new facilities as well, and provide for a far more orderly transition.”
And that, written by a prominent member of City Council, appearing prominently in the News-Press, is my justification for beginning my column with the words: I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard the idea: tear down the still-unpaid $25 million Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School? No way – it’s barely five years old!
That leaves only one more indignity to address: the insinuation that a member of City Council, the School Board, or the Planning Commission betrayed their confidence by leaking the news to me about Hillwood Square. Ms. Wodiska’s press release, in apparent reference to the “leak,” states:
A violation of closed meeting law is serious and grounds for censuring or other punishment of a public official.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Baroukh followed up on this, charging the City Attorney to send out a “reminder” to all members of boards. Were I a board member receiving such a “reminder,” I would consider it an insult to my integrity.
So, amid the finger pointing, insinuations, character assassination, and threats of recrimination, just how did the Man About Town learn that a possible purchase of Hillwood Square property was discussed in closed session? I already gave the answer to Lindy Hockenberry, and it is so simple that she refused to believe me. But believe it or not, I simply read the online agenda item:
Closed Session pursuant to Section 2.2-3711 (A)(3) of the Code of Virginia for the “[d]iscussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, or of the disposition of publicly held real property, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.” [Hillwood Square]
The defense rests.
August 11, 2010
Almost 10 years ago to the day, my father decided to take a bike ride to Leesburg via the W&OD Trail. It was a trip he had taken countless times, so when he didn’t return home after a few hours, we weren’t terribly worried; we figured he had just decided to ride a little further than originally planned.
But when afternoon turned to dusk, and dusk turned to night, we got scared. We called every hospital in the region, we filed a police report, we drove repeatedly to the parking lot where he had left his car. Finally, at 10 p.m., we found out that there was a “John Doe” in Fairfax Hospital’s ICU, who had been medevacked that afternoon from Sterling. He had been hit by a minivan as he crossed one of the many roads the W&OD intersects, and he was in bad shape.
John Doe was my dad. He spent two weeks in a coma, nine months in the hospital, and four more months in rehab and physical therapy as a nearly severed leg and a damaged brain healed. He ultimately returned to work, returned to golf, returned to the gym. In my eyes, it’s a miracle he survived at all.
Ever since then, I’ve treated W&OD road crossings as if the railroad were still operating — without crossing gates or ringing bells. I slow and look both ways before continuing through a crossing. I stop whenever I see a walker, jogger or cyclist approaching. Yet even with such caution, I’ve been amazed by the number of times another driver has zoomed around me and nearly hit the very person I was letting cross in front of me.
So imagine my delight last week, when six “Yield to Pedestrian” signs were erected at each of Falls Church City’s six W&OD road crossings. I was happy to see a post on the City’s Facebook page, reminding motorists “to slow down when approaching a crosswalk and stop if a bicyclist or pedestrian is in the walkway, because they have the right of way.” It continued, “Bicyclists must also observe the Stop sign before entering the crosswalk, and everyone is reminded to look both ways before crossing the road!”
July 23, 2010
This week the Falls Church News-Press printed edition number 1,000. That is quite a feat. Those of us involved in the Falls Church Times can tell you that it’s a lot of work to put together even an online publication. A hard copy newspaper is a much bigger operation, and doing it 1,000 weeks in a row is an accomplishment to be proud of.
In this week’s edition, FCNP publisher Nick Benton includes two lengthy pieces about the paper’s history and his reflections on the meaning of a free press. First, in a story entitled “1,000 Wednesday Nights at the Mighty News-Press,” Mr. Benton relates how the paper began and who helped him along the way. It’s an interesting story, particularly in light of the fact that newspaper economics no longer work in many cases, causing paper after paper to shutter in recent years.
Mr. Benton started the paper in 1991. The headline of his first edition was “Rancorous Public Hearing on School Cuts, Tax Increase” – one he could have re-used this spring.
With obvious delight, Mr. Benton writes that when the printer’s wheels began to turn on that first edition, “I began to bellow above the din of the press, ‘Let every tyrant tremble! The free press is the voice of the people in defense of liberty and freedom everywhere!’”
And he notes that after staying up all night to finish the first edition, he looked outside to see “that the cherry trees lining N. Virginia Avenue [near his office] had blossomed into their full pink radiance.”
“It was a sign,” he said.
Mr. Benton started the FCNP in a small office behind the Exxon station at Broad and North Virginia. He planned for the paper to be a monthly or bi-weekly publication, but started the second edition immediately after putting out the first one, giving birth to a weekly.
In Mr. Benton’s editorial this week, “A Celebration of the First Amendment,” he speaks to the importance of a free press and his role in it, mentioning a variety of figures including First Amendment author George Mason, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and recently fired-and-rehired USDA employee Shirley Sherrod. He goes on to note a number of public officials who accepted his invitation to sign a congratulatory ad that appears in this week’s FCNP, saying “The elected officials have every reason to affirm these things.”
Mr. Benton goes too far, however, when he reports that newly-elected Mayor Nader Baroukh declined the invitation to sign the ad – and pointedly contrasts him with other public officials who did sign the ad.
According to Benton, Mayor Baroukh’s reason for declining to lend his name to the ad was, “As an elected official I should not be in the business of congratulating the media on what it does or does not do.”
I believe Baroukh is right.
Although Baroukh was quickly criticized by former Mayor Robin Gardner and former Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry for not supporting a local business, it is important to remember that the media is not just another business. Its business is reporting news and opining on it — most importantly, the news of government. The media influences government action, and unabashedly so.
As a result, the media can be extremely powerful. The adage, “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel” is a wise reminder that the person who controls public information wields great power. This is very relevant in Falls Church City, where Mr. Benton is the only person whose words touch every doorstep in town. By the mere reach of those words, he is arguably the most influential person in Falls Church City. And the fact that he would report Baroukh’s decision not to lend his name to a congratulatory ad indicates Mr. Benton’s willingness to use his influence.
That the press is powerful is not necessarily a bad thing. Its power is necessary in order to offset the power of government. But – and here is the thing — in order for the media and the government to work properly, they cannot become too cozy. Government officials kowtowing to the press or vice versa could be a disastrous thing for democracy.
In my view, the FCNP’s ad has the feel of kowtowing. It is one thing for community members to congratulate Mr. Benton, but it is another when a group of public officials, who may at any time receive the sting of his lash, line up to congratulate him. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, and I think Mayor Baroukh was wise to decline the offer. Yes, it is part of his job to promote local businesses, but a much more important part of his job is maintaining the proper relationship between institutions, particularly those upon which a democratic system depends.
Therefore, I believe two congratulations are in order. Mr. Benton is to be congratulated for his remarkable run of a 1,000 weeks of newspapers. And Mayor Baroukh is to be congratulated for his mindfulness of the appropriate line between government and the media. May they both continue to do their jobs well.
By GEORGE BROMLEY
Falls Church Times Staff
June 27, 2010
Last month the City of Falls Church held a municipal election. Turnout was 24%. Next month it will hold another election. The turnout will be 100%, but only seven people will be voting.
On July 1, as is required every two years, the City Council will choose one of its members as mayor and another as vice mayor. The mayor will chair the many meetings and work sessions held during the coming term and represent the City at various public functions. The vice mayor will perform these duties in the mayor’s absence.
The selection process often requires the Council members to play a game of “Let’s Make a Deal” in order for one of them to secure the required four or more votes to achieve election. Some critics, including at least one member of the current Council, have suggested that election of the mayor might better be left to the City’s voters. Indeed, it seems inconsistent to continue the practice of a Council-selected mayor after municipal elections were recently moved from May to November, specifically to give voice to more voters. If having a greater turnout regarding Council membership is so important, why is it less important for the selection of mayor?
The counter-arguments are that those serving are best qualified to choose their chairman and deputy and that some deal making is an inherent part of the legislative process. However, deals made in connection with these choices may obligate members to subsequently cast some of their votes more on the basis of loyalty than on principle. There also is the possibility of the Council becoming less collegial and falling into two distinct blocs, based on the division in the mayoral vote.
Some suggest that the mayor should be the candidate receiving the most votes in the last election. That is a flawed system, however. First, it would never be clear if the voters wanted a candidate to be Mayor rather than just a member of the Council. Moreover, it would always exclude the three or four Council members who were not candidates in the last election due to staggered member terms.
Removing the mayoral election from the Council and trusting the choice to voters clearly would elevate the office. It also would be more democratic and probably would increase election turnout. As for the vice mayor, the other six Council members could rotate through the position in order of seniority, each serving four months during the 24 month term.
Such changes would require amending the City’s Charter. While the Council has the authority to take such action, the final decision in the matter should be left to voters via a referendum. Clearly, that is not possible for this year’s mayoral selection, and in that regard we urge the seven members of the Council to choose a person with the vision to lead us forward. But in subsequent elections, the voters should have the opportunity to decide whose vision they prefer.
The views expressed in OPINION columns are those of their authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of other Falls Church Times staff members or of the paper as a whole.
May 14, 2010
This week’s story about the loiterer near Thomas Jefferson Elementary School understandably caused alarm for many parents, and I’ll wager that many chose to bring their kids in. But I think the opposite should happen—we should let our kids out.
Most of us can recall the virtues of free-range play we enjoyed as children. You remember—biking to the park with a friend for the entire afternoon (without a helmet!), wandering the neighborhood looking for something to do (without a cell phone!), and dilly-dallying your way home from school on those first warm afternoons of spring.
As a third grader growing up in just-barely suburban Detroit in the ’70s, I walked to and from school with two friends and my pesky younger sister. We crossed three streets, including a busy boulevard—with a traffic light and no crossing guards. Now from my vantage point at home one block from TJ I watch parents walk their third graders home, some of whom live just around the corner or up the street—yet we have crossing guards and no busy boulevards.
After school I freely roamed the neighborhood, too. Now, nationally, only 15% of elementary and middle school students walk to and from school, and only about a third of elementary students engage in unstructured outdoor play. I’ll guess we’re just about the only mammals that don’t permit our young to frolic anymore. (Frolicking with a coach, a clipboard and pre-approved nutritional snack does not count.)
How and when did we let this happen?
Is it crime rates? Yes, crime rates rose during the late ’80s and early ’90s, but they are now back to 1970s levels. Of course, an astute commenter might point out that because we keep our children inside, crime rates are low. If this strategy were causal, however, there would be an increase in crimes against adults, and that is not the case.
Is it media? Remember, too, that TV stations in the 1970s, the few that there were, were just beginning to realize that child abductions are ratings gold. Now? Camera crews pull hard duty in sunny Portugal to follow the story of a girl taken from her hotel room, and hit the beaches in Aruba, where a college student disappeared. Because networks drown us for days, weeks, and even months with these stories, it can feel like children are being abducted 24/7.
Kids need to know how to keep themselves safe, but they also need time to play, to explore, to be kids. So, teach them how to cross the street, teach them not to go off with strangers, and then: let them out. If your children are already out there frolicking, great! There’s even a term for them—they’re “free range” kids.
“Free Range Kids” was coined about a year ago by Lenore Skenazy, a Manhattan mom raising her then 9-year old son, who one Saturday asked if he could navigate his own way home from the department store where they were. After a review of the safety rules, she gave him her cell phone, a subway map and tickets, and let him go. He arrived home elated with his newfound independence.
Skenazy wrote about the experience on her blog, and in short time was both lauded and jeered by the media (and commenters) for her actions, and was even labeled “America’s Worst Mom.” She took it all in good stride and now writes “Free-Range Kids,” her site devoted to encouraging “commonsense parenting in uncommonly overprotective times.” (Disclaimer: I do not know, nor am I being paid by Ms. Skenazy to write about her. I just think she offers a refreshing perspective on common sense.)
We tout our safe community as one of Falls Church’s most redeeming features, we have an abundance of well-appointed parks, and our elementary school could not be located in a calmer area, yet most students do not, or are not permitted to, walk to and from school, and I see few kids out and about on their own. So I’m wondering, how and when did we let this happen? Are there any free range kids in Falls Church?