Perhaps, finally, a return to outdoors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Is it really over?

Washingtonians aren't ready yet to exhale, following news that two men are in custody in connection with the region's spree of sniper shootings. But residents were hopeful yesterday that the three long weeks of lockdown, shattered routines, and free-floating anxiety may be coming to an end.

"I'm guardedly optimistic that this is the guy," says Ken Tighe, father of two school-age children in suburban Montgomery County, out jogging with his German shepherd. "But I want the kids inside until we have more conclusive evidence. It's been horrific. The kids have been scared."

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Sallie Holdrich, a mother of four, also in Montgomery County, Md., where several of the shootings have taken place, says her eighth-grader went right to the Internet yesterday morning for details of the arrests.

"Emma wanted to read the news articles to have more control over it," says Ms. Holdrich, whose kids peppered her with questions first thing Thursday: What are their names? Where did they get them?

Hoping for an end

Indeed, one name that springs to mind after such a massive search for a killer is Richard Jewell, the security guard arrested for setting off a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Then, as now, police were under intense pressure to arrest someone – anyone, it seemed – and Mr. Jewell was later proved innocent.

Washingtonians also note that the two men in custody now, even if guilty, may not be the only people involved in the random shootings that have killed 10 people and wounded three others.

So it remains unclear when area school authorities will decide that life truly can return to normal, with soccer games, field trips to the pumpkin patch, and outdoor recess. Children themselves will need time to decompress from what one mother called "the cocoon" of isolation imposed on them. And there are ways parents can help their kids process the drama.

"We shouldn't hide from our kids the vulnerability they face just going about their daily lives," says Nadja Cabello, director of the Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program in Montgomery County. "But we can emphasize some very encouraging things – how in this case, if these do turn out to be the snipers who were arrested, the police and citizens working together have been able to make the community safe again."

Mrs. Cabello, whose own children coped with the sniper shootings in very different ways, says parents can be on the lookout for children's varying responses.

"Some may act as though nothing ever happened," she says, while some children and adults alike may have more trouble getting over the experience – having nightmares or signs of extended anxiety.

Cabello – whose 11-year-old son Adriel had planned to be Santa Claus for Halloween so that, in his words, "I can put a big pillow in front and one in back to make me safe from bullets" during trick-or-treating – says her children responded with "a breath of hope and relief" when they heard that two suspects had been arrested. But she says their attention to the experience shouldn't stop there.

"You can't lie and say they'll never be vulnerable again," she says. "We had Sept. 11, then this happens and reminds us. But you can also point to this experience and say, 'If something like this does happen [again], you can count on people pulling together, in our families and in our communities, to help solve the problem.' "

Larger lessons

Some Washingtonians also see a larger lesson in the sniper episode, as the nation contemplates war with Iraq. Though the odds were extremely low that anyone here would actually get hit by the sniper, "we were letting it terrorize us," says Sue Hemberger, a constitutional law scholar who lives in Washington, just over the Maryland line. "At the same time, we're debating Iraq, talking about dropping bombs on [people] in their houses or carpet-bombing in Afghanistan. So my sympathy for the people who are feeling unsafe is very low in the cosmic scheme of things."

In fact, throughout the ordeal, not everyone in the Washington area was as terrorized as the wall-to-wall cable news hype suggested.

Even if organized outdoor sports were canceled, some people felt safe enough to jog in their neighborhoods or let kids have a pickup game of soccer in a neighborhood that didn't fit the sniper's pattern – to strike in a commercial suburban area near a highway.

Carol Fiertz of Bethesda let her kids play in friends' backyards. "They've played a lot of hoops," she says.

In Washington, John Eaton Elementary School went ahead with its annual outdoor block party last weekend by draping a tarp over the fence that surrounds the playground. Some private schools used the same tactic to allow teen sports to proceed.

But in some households, cocoon living had firmly set in. Fourth-grader John Lloyd used to play flag football on Fridays and soccer on Saturdays. Then the shootings began. Now "I'm running around inside the house, playing soccer," he said. "It drives my mother crazy."

Soccer outdoors again?

For other families, especially those with teenagers, there's been anger and frustration as varsity sports schedules are curtailed and homecoming dances canceled. But most older kids interviewed seemed to approach the situation philosophically. They know the likelihood of getting shot has been tiny, but they also know that their elders don't want to take chances.

Dan Slacter, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, plays varsity soccer, but hasn't had a game since the shootings began. His team has continued to practice indoors, but the space is cramped and their time is limited. So when the playoffs begin next week, they'll be at a disadvantage when they play teams from outside the area.

"It's unfair to us and really frustrating, but it's for the best," says Dan. "If we had a practice and someone was shot, the school system would be to blame. The indoor practices haven't been horrible."

Even if the shootings are indeed over, the debate over how the Washington area should have handled the risks versus maintaining as much normality as possible will continue.

The question has been especially tricky in Washington, D.C., itself, which has felt safer than the suburbs, with no easy getaways for a shooter.

Last Saturday, an angry D.C. private-school parent bought an ad in The Washington Post sports section saying,

"Sorry, Sidwell Friends' homecoming is canceled due to paranoia and bad judgment." On Monday, two parents from D.C.'s Deal Junior High published an open letter to the school's superintendent on an e-mail list, calling for an end to the lockdown in Washington.

"We cannot allow the current atmosphere of fear to paralyze everyday life," wrote Bruce and Sherry Maliken. "We want our children to have hope and courage instead of fear and anxiety. What better way can we model this for our children, than to take action and reclaim our daily regimen?"

Soon, another parent seconded the Malikens' comments. "D.C. is being supercautious, especially in a city of lawyers," a third parent commented privately. And then the predictable backlash came, as e-mails poured in applauding the city for its prudence.

For high-schoolers, at least, humor has also been an antidote to stress. After the sniper's alleged threat against children was publicized, "kids were joking about it and saying how stupid it was," says Johanna McCrehan, a student at Walter Johnson High in Bethesda, Md.

Another high-schooler has let off steam by referring to the shooter as "Snipee."

Kids in Washington are tough, says Laura Akgulian, whose daughter is a senior in high school here. "Think of this as a continuum," she says. "First there was Sept. 11, then anthrax, now this. They're very aware that stuff happens – they know, for example, that crime in the city is up this year – but they feel they're in a bubble."

And, she notes, she's sure it's been very different for kids in Aspen Hill, a neighborhood in Montgomery County that has had several of the shootings.

But even as this episode reaches a possible conclusion, some parents aren't ready to let themselves relax.

"We have to continuously be on guard or on the lookout, or we're fooling ourselves and not protecting our children," says Mr. Tighe, the Bethesda father of two. "The world is getting scarier. This is just one more example that's driving it home."

• Staff writer Howard Lafranchi contributed to this report.

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