Tonawanda News

February 14, 2013

When over-reaction, isn't

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — It’s different, as a parent.

I’ve worked in the newspaper business for 16 years. For a good chunk of that time, I’ve dealt a lot with schools and education, and by extention, with issues of safety and preparedness. 

I was an education reporter at my first full time journalism job in April 1999, during the Columbine shootings. I stood in the newsroom and watched video coverage of students running from the school, and I knew that things had changed forever.

There were threats at local schools, after that. Nothing ever came to pass. Presumably, officials told me, kids found out that spreading such rumors meant a day off school. (Most of those students also eventually found out it wasn’t such a good idea, after all.) We wrote about safety and what schools were doing and what could happen here.

Years passed. Things changed some more. There were incidents, but none of them here, and they didn’t register as anything other than a word to the wise to any district that might be lax in its safety standards.

I didn’t deal with the schools so much, those days — at least not as a reporter. 

I was in another newsroom, here at the Tonawanda News, in December when the first news started coming in about Sandy Hook. (I first learned over text message, this time, as opposed to the breaking news banner on the TV. A sign of the times, indeed.) 

I have kids now. It was a kick in the stomach. I watched the news trickle in, and it wasn’t just news this time. I cried, that day — I have no problem admitting it — and I had a hard time letting my sons go off to school when next Monday rolled around. I did it anyway. Such is life.

But things had changed, again.

On Monday, I was sitting at the same desk when I got a new text message. Some parents in the Ken-Ton district, it said, would be getting a letter home that day. Because I have issues with curiosity, I decided to go take a look on the district website.

Words jump out at you. “Suspicious individual,” said the letter. “Police.” “Time to lock and load.” “Black hand gun.” “Be vigilant.” “Lock out.”

It’s different, as a parent. 

Your mind doesn’t go right to “how do we cover this?” Instead, it’s an almost primal reaction, a hind-brain sort of “oh my god my child’s in danger” reflex, a fight-or-flight jolt that demands that you either find the threat and rip its (profanity deleted) head off — or grab your child, hustle them home and never, ever, ever let them leave the house again

Neither, of course, is practical. After the initial fraction of a second of pure, blinding fear, I took a deep breath and got back to reality. Nothing had happened. Police had been warned. Precautions were in place. This is what’s supposed to happen. You let the authorities do their jobs.

(I still made my husband promise to call the instant our kids were home. But that’s beside the point.)

In hindsight, it looks so simple. Silly, even. Someone in a mini mart who was holding something black, who said a phrase that just might have contained five suspicious words. Could have been a wallet. Could have been something about locking himself out of his car. Who knows? We probably never will. I have this vision of a mini mart regular reading the news story the next day and thinking, “Gee, I was there right around that time! I wonder if I saw him!” — and never knowing that he was “him.”

Call it over-reaction, if you like. I know people who are. But if a little bit of over-reaction keeps another Columbine or Sandy Hook from happening in Ken-Ton, Western New York or anywhere in this country or this world, I count that over-reaction well done indeed.

It’s different, as a parent. Everything looks personal. Every child on the news broadcast looks a little like your own.

And so this parent thanks the Ken-Ton School District and the Town of Tonawanda police from the bottom of her heart.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com.