Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Howie Balaban: Thinking Out Loud: Avoiding Widespread Panic

For the record, I am beginning to write this hot take of a column at approximately 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. About 6 hours ago, the automated call system used by the Medina Central School District called my house and my cell phone to alert me (and every other district parent) that the district had been put on lockdown as a precautionary measure.

Shortly before the phone rang a fellow parent texted me with the same news.
The parent in me went on alert. The journalist in me remained skeptical.
In recent years America has had to withstand stories that have become national news for all the wrong reasons, and many of those stories dealt with young school children. I do not even want to think about how the parents of those children felt. However, if there is one thing I take solace in now, it is that over the past two decades the technology, protocol, and journalism associated with such terrible instances has, for the most part, improved.
The earliest tragic incident I can remember was Columbine. I was a freshman at Syracuse at that time, and that story broke during the second semester. It was the only story the seniors I was working with focused on during their newscast that day, for the story occurred on the same day as I had my broadcast journalism practicum. It was the only story anybody was reporting on that day.
Since that time there have been similar stories in the news, and the stories and the end results seem to blend together. Yet the evolution of such incidences cannot be overlooked.
When Columbine happened, it was 1999. For all intents and purposes, the cell phone age was in its infancy.
Today, more high schoolers have phones than not, and a good number of middle schoolers do, too. There are even some in the elementary school who I'm sure have a phone. Information is sent from person to person faster than ever before.
With such a fast-paced world, though, we must all remain careful of who and what we believe at first, and do our best not to jump to conclusions. If anything, the events of the past two decades have proven to be learning experiences for both the school districts across the country and the press who cover them. Law enforcement agencies have also adapted to the changing times.
So when my cell phone pinged and then the phone rang, I stopped and took a breath. The time between the news breaking of the lockdown and the district wide phone call was about an hour. Too much longer and I might have grown worried. No call at all and I would have likely called the district myself.
But an hour, by my estimation, is about right.
As parents, we entrust each and every person in our children's schools not only with their education, but with their safety. That said, I have no idea how today's incident went down. I would imagine there was communication between the Medina Police and the Medina Central School District. Then I suppose there was coordination among the three buildings on the MCSD campus to ensure student safety. Then, once all protocol was followed, I believe the call went out to the parents.
To the district, I say, "Bravo!"
School officials did the best they could with the information provided and they did so in a fairly timely manner. Was the suspect caught? As of 3:06 p.m., I have not seen anything saying he was. What I have seen are different reports that stated the suspect was determined to not be in the area after a thorough search.
In a bit of a coincidence, my son and I watched a documentary on the Orson Welles Mercury Theater Broadcast of The War of the Worlds last night. The year was 1938 and TV was a year away from being introduced at the World's Fair. But radio was bigger than the Internet, and those tuning in just a minute late to the broadcast would have missed the introduction to the incredibly well done, yet fictional account of the Martian Invasion of Grovers Mill, NJ. Phone lines and roads were jammed and panic quickly spread in the Northeast. According to the documentary, Welles refused to jump into the live broadcast and remind listeners they were tuned to an actual show. At the end of the hour, though, he wrapped it all up with a "Boo!" and reminded everyone that Halloween was the next night.
Juxtaposing that broadcast with today's experience, all I can really do is think about how lucky we are with how far we have come. Information flies fast and furious, thus all but eliminating the possibility of another War of the Worlds-type of hysteria, but as difficult as it is to pause and take a moment to think, we must do so when things like today's incident happened. Did I want information immediately? Absolutely. But I also don't want a school official thinking, "Oh, my! I need to call all the parents!" No - I want them thinking how best to ensure the safety of our children.
Unless reports surface later today or tomorrow showing otherwise, the latter is what happened. Only afterward were parents informed.
Safety first. Deal with the hurt feelings later.
It's 3:22 p.m. and my oldest two got off the bus a few minutes ago. Safe and sound (although they've already had one argument since walking in the door).
Thanks again to the MCSD and any law enforcement that helped out in making sure all students got home today without too much worry.
You'll excuse me now while I go give a hug to the ones belonging to me.

Howard Balaban is a stay-at-home dad who has covered breaking news in the past and learned that sometimes jumping to conclusions doesn't serve a purpose.