The Old Man and the School Pickup

Published: February 28 2014 | 8:19 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:17 am in

In Sterling, Conn., this week, a great-grandpa picked up the wrong kindergartener from school. The two boys had similar hats, and the one Gramps took home had his hat pulled all the way over his head. Frankly, I can see how that could happen.

Gramps got home, realized his mistake, alerted the school. The principal called the mom to say her son had been accidentally picked up by the wrong man -- someone known to the school -- and that the child was not in danger. He was being returned immediately. At which point, the mom insisted that the police and child protective services be notified.

Why?

This kind of mistake is not criminal, and it is not harmful to the child. If anything, it could become a family story.

Instead, it became a news story.

That’s because we have been trained, as a culture, to treat every blip in school protocol as an outrage. We have been trained to see every child not directly supervised as being in unspeakable danger. And we have been trained to imagine what terrible thing COULD happen in any situation involving a child and to react as if it DID or almost did.

The journalists assigned to this story took to describing distant threats, just to make it seem even reasonable that they were reporting on it. One said, “There are four sex offenders in the community who could have done the same thing.”

Perhaps. But I imagine very few sex offenders come to pickup time hoping to grab a child not their own in front of an entire schoolyard of parents, teachers and students.

As for trauma, it seems far likelier the child will be traumatized by his parents’ hysteria than he would have if the dumb mistake had been remedied quickly.

So maybe the school should go ahead and make doubly sure the kids are being picked up by the right person. That’s what the school is saying it will do. But let’s also remember there was an era not so long ago when no one picked up kids. They just went home on their own. Now the school is establishing pickup areas for kids through eighth grade!

This knee-jerk desire for a systemic response to a one-shot problem is becoming so common. Here’s a more tragic version of it in Australia: After a tree fell on a school in a freak accident earlier this month -- killing an 8-year-old and injuring another student and a teacher -- the state government ordered a check of all trees near schools across the entire state.

In comments on Facebook, people are calling for all gum trees to be removed from schools, for every building to be reassessed every couple of years, etc., etc.

The belief that we can and must prevent everything along the spectrum from harmless mistakes to acts of God is turning us into worriers always eager to blame someone for something almost completely unpredictable and often unpreventable.

Until we regain the perspective that humans are not always perfect and fate is not always fair, we will be screaming for new laws, excessive oversight and perhaps a pound of flesh.

Roll the cameras.

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