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Stop the two-hour snow delays

Read the opposite side of this debate, from Answer Sheet blogger Valerie Strauss, by clicking here.

I know I'm not going to get my way on this. The lawyers are against me and others who share this view. Nobody beats the lawyers, or the parents who will worry no matter what the actual risk. But maybe in some future era, when we all walk around in magic padding that reduces chance of injury to zero, the legal profession will see a way to save schools from wasting a lot of precious time.

There were one or two inches of snow in my yard today, and on the street outside. It wasn't plowed. We are usually last on the list. But the car got out of our usually tricky slanted driveway with no trouble. So why were school openings in my district, and most others around here, delayed for two hours?

I have heard the excuses. Some neighborhoods were worse than others. Some teachers came from outside the district where conditions were more severe. And most importantly, the district would open itself to lawsuits if anyone got hurt on a snowy road rushing their kids to make the first bell at 8 a.m.

We hear the same reasons for evaculating schools when 17 year old pranksters call in a bomb threat. Or calling school off altogether in face of a threatening forecast, before a flake has fallen. These are all tough calls by caring adults, but it seems to me that the time missed in class gets the lowest priority.

Closing schools in blizzards makes sense. But was today's two hour delay really necessary? Couldn't we persuade the lawyers to let some brave school board pilot a program that takes a tougher attitude toward closing or delaying schools, and see what happened, with a foundation grant to take care of what I expect would be a rise in their insurance coverage?

The evacuations for bomb threats are particularly galling, since the percentage of incidents where a bomb is actually found is so small. A U.S. Department of Justice report by Graeme R. Newman, "Bomb Threats In Schools," said at least 90 percent of them prove to be false. I suspect the real bombs are mostly found without incident, or do little damage. It is hard to recall any school bombing in this country that killed anybody.

It isn't the fault of the superintendents who make these decisions. They have to do what the district lawyers and insurance experts tell them. But those people should rethink their systems, and see if we can't avoid so many interruptions in what is already a pretty short school day.

For the other side of this debate, click here.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 8, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Tags:  Graeme R. Newman; wasting class time, school closings; school delays; school bomb threats  
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