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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2002 /18 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Dave Shiflett

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White Flags Over Richmond: Should we close all the schools forever? -- The sniper seems to have returned to his original shooting grounds, which means Richmond officials can rise from their bunkers to give the "all clear" sign. Let us hope that other communities are made of sterner stuff than the folks down here in the land of Lee, Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson. When trouble stuck, we opted to follow the example set by another fabled Southern leader, Jubilation T. Cornpone, patron saint of wimps.

Jubilation, as readers steeped in the classics will recall (this classic being Li'l Abner) was "the first to say I quit." Richmond got a whiff of gunpowder from nearby Ashland - 15 miles to the north - and closed down its schools, as did the surrounding suburban school districts and many private schools as well. And so 142,000 public schoolers were off Monday and Tuesday because a traveler was shot Saturday a ways up Interstate 95.

It has been a somewhat curious story. The afternoon after the Ashland sniping officials announced, with calm determination, that the schools would not be shut down. That would be giving in to terror. Instead, a significant police presence was ordered up and most school doors would be locked after classes began. The door-locking part of the plan seemed a bit superfluous, to be sure. The sniper after all is shooting from a distance, and perhaps from his vehicle. But hearts were in the right place. Like school districts in the other besieged communities, ours would not knuckle under to the maniac.

Yet several hours later came a News Alert! School officials had reversed course. Why? As they explained it, a large number of parents had called in to insist their kids be locked out of school. The alarm was so overwhelming, officials insisted, that they had no choice but to give the kids a couple of days off.

This struck many of us as quite curious. There are six or so school districts in the immediate Richmond area (other districts further south closed as well), some quite far from Ashland, and also safely removed from I-95. My local public school, for example, is 30 miles away from the shooting site and half that distance, at least, from the Interstate. It is hard to believe a significant percentage of parents demanded a shutdown. Indeed, when schools are closed for "snow-related" reasons (in these parts, a half inch or more can equal paralysis), parents tend to get steamed. They're planning on their kids being in school; when they get an unscheduled holiday that means providing supervision. It also means a lot of students will end up on the streets and at the shopping malls.

Which is the relevant point. Of all the shootings, only one has been at a school. The others have been at gas stations, businesses, and on the street. Which is where a lot of the 142,000 students will go since they don't have to go to school. The decision to close made the area an ever-more target-rich environment - which is especially interesting in light of yet another News Alert! Now officials reveal another factor in the closing: A note supposedly left behind by the sniper contained a "possible" suggestion schools could be a target. If one were a sniper, one might indeed lobby to close the schools. He knows, like the authorities supposedly know, that school is the safest place for kids. Besides that, the message was hardly directed at us: "Your children are not safe at any place at any time" was the reported message. In that case, perhaps school should be out forever.

Some of us have held out the hope that many of the worried calls may have come from the students themselves, lobbying for a day off. That would suggest that at least some portion of the population maintains the ingenuity and panache of earlier generations. These hopes are slender, however.

The only good thing to happen is that the kids had plenty to watch on television. Around nine or so, more News Alerts! - this time because police thought they might have grabbed the sniper at a local gas station. The television experts were wary at first, but as the day went on several grew confident that relevant arrests had been made. Their sense of relief can be easily understood: They've been blowing a lot of hot air for two weeks and no doubt need a breather.

As we now know, the suspects were actually a couple of undocumented guys with a supernaturally bad sense of timing. While the overall sniper drama is horrible, this incident does provide a bit of comic relief. It appears the man grabbed at the phone booth was Mexican. He had stopped to make a call - perhaps to get directions to a job site or some other mundane chore. He happened to be driving a white van (white vans really are everywhere - 51,000 in the D.C. area alone).

Witnesses describe the takedown as impressive. Three officers in bulletproof armor, bearing "big guns with scopes and long clips," snuck up on the vehicle and pulled open the doors and extracted the driver in one fluid motion. Immediately, according to one onlooker, 20 to 30 police cars materialized out of thin air. Helicopters appeared overhead. Reagan hardly used this much force to liberate Grenada.

The poor Mexican driver no doubt quickly concluded that, despite all he had heard, America is taking illegal immigration pretty seriously these days. Or perhaps he wondered, "What is going on in this country."

He's not the only one. dime.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett