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Who Let The Dogs On The School Grounds?

Was it the time a golden retriever jumped up and snatched a sandwich from her son's hand at a neighborhood soccer game, startling and scaring the 6-year-old? Was it the incident when dogs outside Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda jumped at her daughter? Or is there some unknown dog trauma in Danuta Wilson's past that explains her crusade?

Parents at Westbrook say there must be some rational reason for Wilson's drive to get Montgomery County to stop parents from taking dogs along when they drop off or fetch their children at school.

"It's been several years, and she's worked her way up from the PTA to animal control to the superintendent of schools, the parks department, the police -- she got the county dog officers to come to school and check everyone's tags and vaccinations," says Kevin McNeely, a patent lawyer who occasionally takes his bulldog along as he walks his child to Westbrook. "Danuta even followed me around with a camera and took pictures."

"The general feeling is there's an agenda there, and we don't know what it is," says Renee Kannapell, co-president of Westbrook's parents association. "I am not a dog owner, but she's the only person in the entire community who's upset about this. We're focused on trying to pass the schools budget in full, and she's turning attention to something that's not a problem: People walk their kids with their dogs to school every morning, and nobody minds."

"One person can make a difference," John F. Kennedy famously said, and no one can possibly accuse Wilson of failing to take up that challenge.

Her e-mails go on for thousands of words. She has become a household name in the offices of school systems throughout the Washington area. She hammered at the Montgomery school board so long and so hard that it issued a formal decision on her request that signs be posted banning dogs from school property: The board concurred with the animal control department's view that the existing rules and signs are "more than adequate" and kicked the issue to that department for any further consideration. Whew.

But Wilson is not going away. By her own account, she and Westbrook's principal communicate about the dog issue at least once a week. She plans to appeal to the state Board of Education. She's meeting with elected officials. She has canvassed 36 Montgomery elementary schools and says she has found a wide variety of policies and practices. From her report: "Carderock Springs -- Dogs not allowed during school hours. Arcola -- 'we cannot tell people not to bring dogs.' Rock Creek Valley -- 'it has become quite a problem.' "

(Policies also vary by county. Fairfax says animals are not permitted on school grounds at any time; Prince George's has no written policy and leaves it to each principal to handle the issue.)

Wilson says she is far from alone in her desire to ban dogs from school grounds. It's just that most parents are wary of public association with the issue, because they don't want to be seen as anti-dog. Indeed, several Westbrook parents told me they're thrilled about Wilson's crusade -- as long as I promised not to publish their names.

"The school system knows it's a problem, but they don't want to deal with it," says Wilson, who works at Georgetown University administering a scholarship program. "Everybody is afraid to discuss this because they don't want to speak against their neighbors. And I am really only interested in the policy, not in confronting other parents."

Whatever her interest, Wilson's actions come off as plenty confrontational. Most Westbrook parents I contacted wanted to make sure I got two things straight: They didn't want to be quoted by name, and they think Wilson is a . . . well, if they want the name-calling in the paper, they're going to have to step up and attach their names.

Curiously, most dog owners I spoke to say they think there is some merit to Wilson's argument.

"This is not out of character for the type of community we have in Bethesda," McNeely says. "We have a lot of Type A people who latch on to issues like this. And she's right, children do come first. So since the principal asked people to voluntarily keep their dogs away from school property, I've complied completely, and so have other parents."

Then what's the problem? Some parents still take dogs to school, and some kids are genuinely frightened. And despite her gale-force agitation on the issue, Wilson has pricked a real cultural sore point -- one so sensitive that an open, reasoned debate seems almost impossible.

Where dog lovers see taking their pet to school as a friendly, even comforting piece of community life, those who fear or don't care for dogs see an aggressive intrusion into their peace of mind. The simple, courteous solution would be to keep dogs well away from school. And the simple, courteous way to get there would be for Wilson to spend more energy winning people over to her view than waging war against the bureaucracy. You won't find change in the regs; it comes from below.

By Marc Fisher |  May 18, 2008; 12:59 PM ET
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Comments

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More power to her. The funniest part of the whole article was where it mentioned that Fairfax prohibits animals on school grounds at all times. I work in a Fairfax school where it is almost a tradition for teachers to bring their dogs in on Teacher Work Days. There's even one teacher in my department who brings in her dog to show off as part of a lesson on training animals. I can only imagine what this lady would think if she was at my school.

Posted by: Concerned Teacher | May 18, 2008 5:09 PM

wonder what will happen when her kids show fear of traffic..... or thunderstorms..... or old people..... oe feral cats..... or suspiciously behaving squirrels.....or mosquitos.....or the homeless.....

Posted by: Anonymous | May 18, 2008 7:02 PM

Marc, I admit I am a bit confused. When a guy wants to ban a sidewalk ping-pong because it might, maybe cause an accident, you point out how ridiculous it is that one person can ruin a good time, even when there is no actual problem. Here once again another lone nut goes out of their way to solve a non-problem that exists only in their minds, and everyone else should change their (completely harmless) behavior to accommodate? I agree with the poster above. What I'm scared of bees or trucks with deep engines (all common child phobias) No more school buses, then?
For the record, when my dad was growing up in Schenectady, NY, his dog would run up to the classroom window at his elementary school and bark whenever he forgot his lunch, or his baseball glove, etc. His teacher would excuse him to run home and get what he forgot. I guess now in Montgomery we'd need to make a federal case out of something like that?

Posted by: Confused | May 18, 2008 8:29 PM

Marc, I admit I am a bit confused. When a guy wants to ban a sidewalk ping-pong because it might, maybe cause an accident, you point out how ridiculous it is that one person can ruin a good time, even when there is no actual problem. Here once again another lone nut goes out of their way to solve a non-problem that exists only in their minds, and everyone else should change their (completely harmless) behavior to accommodate? I agree with the poster above. What I'm scared of bees or trucks with deep engines (all common child phobias) No more school buses, then?
For the record, when my dad was growing up in Schenectady, NY, his dog would run up to the classroom window at his elementary school and bark whenever he forgot his lunch, or his baseball glove, etc. His teacher would excuse him to run home and get what he forgot. I guess now in Montgomery we'd need to make a federal case out of something like that?

Posted by: Confused | May 18, 2008 8:29 PM

This is a case of a person with way too much time on her hands. Not everything needs to be sanitized. Not everything needs to be scrubbed. Life happens. Animals, bugs, people, air are all part of life. The more we protect kids the more afraid they will be and the more needy they will be. I encourage my kids to have fun. They fall, they get scared, they get scrapes and bleed. But they learn. My daughter is afraid of dogs. WHen we see one walking toward us. I hold her and tell her how nice the doggy is. She is getting better.

Posted by: Brian | May 18, 2008 8:40 PM

Marc, your conclusion here came out of nowhere. After pointing out how utterly unpopular (and by extension, how undemocratic) Wilson's position is, how on earth do you make the jump to the closing remark that "The simple, courteous solution would be to keep dogs well away from school."

Since when did an overwhelmingly unpopular and ungrounded position become the simple and courteous one?

Civic activism is terrific. But at some point, when it's clear that popular opinion and compelling rationale just don't back you up, the behavior rightfully gets judged as not activism, but crazyland harassment and antidemocratic nonsense.

Posted by: Confounded | May 18, 2008 8:42 PM

Its dog crap! When you step in it while wearing Converse All-Stars, the poop gets stuck in those hundreds of little squares and diamonds in the tread pattern.

It is also unsanitary. You all know very well that most dog owners rarely clean-up after their four-legged crap dispensers.

In New York's Central Park, the soil in the children's play area was found to be so contaminated with feces and worm larvae that City officials dug the soil up and replaced it. They had to treat the dog crap laden soil that was removed as "hazardous waste" because it contained so much infectious bacteria.

Dogs are a nuisance and an environmental hazard. They just don't belong in congested areas, no matter how much their owners coo about their love for them. As population becomes more densely packed, we need to establish dog free zones to promote better sanitation and minimize noise pollution.

Dog owners who fail to clean-up their poop, should have their noses rubbed in it and given a heavy fine, followed by some official saying to the offender in a loud and stern voice, "BAD dog owner...BAD dog owner...BAD (girl/boy)!

Posted by: Clairese Lippincott | May 18, 2008 9:24 PM

One person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn't.

Posted by: Marge Simpson | May 18, 2008 9:29 PM

One word describes this woman...nut.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | May 18, 2008 11:25 PM

I think it is up to the individual dog owner to make sure their animal is behaving approprately in public. AND you must clean up after them. I have three dogs and it's really not that hard. That being said not all dog owners clean up or have trained their four-legged companions. I think Ms.Wilson should spend more time focused on teaching children how to interact with dogs to prevent fears as they get older; if she wants to focus on a dog-related issue. It really sounds like she has too much time on her hands.

Posted by: dog owner | May 18, 2008 11:44 PM

For Confounded: I don't know how "overwhelmingly unpopular" a position the desire to keep dogs away from school grounds is, but I don't see any evidence that the pro-dogs-at-school crowd is by any means a majority. The American Veterinary Medical Association's survey of pet ownership finds that 37 percent of U.S. households own a dog. Locally, the numbers are lower: Just 7 percent in the District, 31 percent in Maryland and 36 percent in Virginia.

Posted by: Fisher | May 18, 2008 11:49 PM

Fisher, is this blog an attempt to stop her from e-mailing you? One would think that people are bringing unleashed dogs on school grounds, which you know is not the case. Have you seen the pictures she's taken? If so, did you see anything that alarmed you?

Posted by: Had enough huh? | May 19, 2008 12:18 AM

Hopefully she'll be mauled by a rabid raccoon, or squirrel, or even scratched by a diseased feral cat... Anything to give her weird combination of OCD and cynophobia some other focus...

This is a woman with some deep seated mental issues, and that's the thing that ought to be most obvious to everyone about this whole "problem".

Posted by: Nym | May 19, 2008 12:35 AM

Marcs anti-dog sentiment is well known and even he touts it proudly. The world would be a better place (until I need my Social Security) with more dogs and fewer kids.

Regarding the subject of the story I think there should be a law against parents getting involved with school issues. If you want to be involved how about working with your kid so they excel at school.

Posted by: Stick | May 19, 2008 7:51 AM

I think what's most interesting is how "polite society" deals with issues like these. We don't know whether the community thinks if banning dogs is a good or bad idea because there is a fear that something bad will happen if they express their opinion.

I will say that right or wrong, Ms Wilson is a profile in courage. Maybe Westbrook needs a show of hands and let democracy prevail. I think the freedom of speach extends even to Montgomery County.

Posted by: Attribution declined for fear of retribution | May 19, 2008 9:07 AM

I agree w/ Brian. Life happens and there will be times where you feel uncomfortable and will simply need to deal with it. She has too much time on her hands and, I susupect, is in the minority when it comes to the dog issue. I feel most people either don't care or don't see it as an issue.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 11:34 AM

Wow this lady needs to get a hobby and out of other folks lives.

Posted by: Another day another fruit loop | May 19, 2008 3:09 PM

I disagree with the author's conclusion that it would be courteous for all dog owners to keep their dogs at home. Ms. Danuta Wilson and/or her child have a particularly sensitivity to dogs. Since Danuta and I have children that line up for the same class, I do not come near the line up with my dog and instead walk by the school. Until I was contacted by the Washington Post (a slow news cycle this week?), I was under the impression that this had solved the problem since there is no other dog that comes near our kindegarten class line-up. I now understand that the issue has more to do with an abstraction rather than solving a problem for a particular family.

Posted by: Kevin McNeely | May 19, 2008 3:23 PM

"The world would be a better place (until I need my Social Security) with more dogs and fewer kids."

This is the kind of calluous attitude that makes most non-dog owners circumspect of dog owners. What a completely selfish and absurd comment. I can just picture you happily spending your social security checks on Alpo every month, while children in this country go to sleep hungry.

I didn't really care one way or the other about this issue until I read your post. Count me among the majority who don't want dogs at school.

Posted by: Cliff | May 19, 2008 3:36 PM

If Danuta's wish is granted, dogs will be restricted to the sidewalk in front of the school, with no way for people w/ a fear of dogs to dodge them. What will be next, no dogs on the sidewalk in front of the school? No dog walking in the neighborhood for the 30 minutes before or after school? If people keep their dogs on leash, I see no problem.

Posted by: sayit | May 19, 2008 9:49 PM

I have an eight month old impressionable puppy that lives a block away from Ms. Wilson. The last thing I want to expose this sweet dog to is an unbalanced human.

Furthermore, Ms. Wilson is the same person who tried (unsuccessfully) to get yard sales banned from the Green Acres neighborhood. She maintains that they put her children at risk by bringing in strangers and predators.

As far as the sandwich snatching Golden Retriever, I think Ms. Wilson should have been watching her kids more closely when a loose dog was around. Most parents would have stepped in IMMEDIATELY before anything happened and demanded the owner leash the dog. Duh!!!

Attempts to legislate based on irrational fears just polarize our peaceful community.

Posted by: Pam Coblyn | May 20, 2008 1:11 PM

What's always so interesting about Marc, is the way he is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the dreaded neighborhood activist. What would he do without him or her? Not make a living, quite possibly. Sometimes he just seems content to fan the flames, as now...

Posted by: Anonymous | May 20, 2008 8:25 PM

I have known Kevin and other dog owners in our neighborhood to only be mature responsible adults. It is very unusual to find dog waste anywhere near the school. Ms. Wilson has a crusade against many things which may seem important to her, which is admirable, however with one look at our neighborhood prior to moving in would have shown her that it is a dog-friendly neighborhood. All day you will find responsible owners walking their dogs. When we moved in I loved the community feeling and the way to meet new people (both with and without dogs) by walking the dog in the morning. What is really sad is that instead of focusing energy in helping her kids to overcome fears she is only reinforcing them. What is even more unfortunate is to have a young boy who is unable to visit friends at their house because he is fearful of dogs. While he may have playdates at his own home or "dog free zones" he is being limited in his friends and relationships. This will become a bigger propblem when he is older. One of the reasons we have a dog is to teach our children about responsibility. Again, I think in the interest of "protecting her child" Ms. Wilson has gone way over the top. I can almost understand the initial part of the battle, but the following of responsible adults in the neighborhood with a camera?? Ms. Wilson, Take your camera to your kids baseball game, interact with him. Or put your energy where we need it- the real story is that we have 2 current portables at school which the Post reported long before we even got them at Westbrook cause health issues for our children. Our kids are being stuffed into overcrowded classes (have you been to any of the PTA meetings this year?) and there may be issues with the dates of the anticipated construction of a gym . . those issues are more likely to be an issue for your kid than the dogs in the neighborhood.

Posted by: Westbrook parent | May 22, 2008 9:53 AM

Meant to comment on this earlier; but here goes. The problem with dogs is the owner. Many owners will have their dogs "off leash" -- and this starts a whole set of problems. It takes just one owner with an off-leash dog and then other owners, particularly MEN, begin walking their dogs off leash. I've witnessed this insane phenomena time and time again, from Washington, DC, to Austin, Texas. Unbelievable.

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