How far can we go to keep kids safe?

Sep. 18, 2013 @ 01:46 PM

When I was in high school, cross country wasn't exactly considered a dangerous sport. That would be football, where concussions and broken bones were common.

Times have changed, to the point that the Board of Education in Radford, Va., has banned high school cross country athletes from running on public roads.

"With our excellent trails ... we feel that this will be the safest way to train our athletes," school officials said in a letter to students and parents last month. Rejecting complaints, the board reaffirmed its decision last week.

Radford, a town of 16,000, is on the New River in the western Virginia high country. The high school is near two parks and the Riverway Trail. Indeed, there should be plenty of opportunity for running off the streets and away from traffic.

But that's not the point. The real issue is how protective adults need to be of young people in their care.

In my days as a high school cross country runner, the coach might send us off on a designated route and wait for our return. Usually, the routes took us off campus -- many miles off campus, in some instances -- and covered public streets and roads.

It required watching out for cars, a skill we learned from the time we were allowed to let go of our mother's hand. Generally, there was more to fear from loose dogs excited by the prospect of chasing skinny kids in short pants.

Hard experience, however, urges caution these days. A quick Google search yields a number of collisions of cars and high school runners:

-- Aug. 12 in Carver County, Minn.

-- July 25 in Pearland, Texas.

-- Sept. 18, 2012, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

-- July 6, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif.

-- Sept. 30, 2011, in St. Louis, Mo.

-- Sept. 15, 2011, in Cook County, Ill.

There's no epidemic of cross country carnage on the streets, but it's possible to at least understand the caution in Radford.

Guilford County Schools "does not have a policy that specifically addresses this, but safety is always a top priority and we expect our schools to make sure that athletic practices are conducted in a safe environment," Director of Athletics Leigh Hebbard told me by email Monday.

That's sensible. If I were a coach, I'd let my athletes run on safe streets but keep them off busy ones.

That's a long-distance example of a dilemma playing out in many venues where adults have responsibility for children. After years of horror stories about young people victimized by predatory priests, teachers, scout leaders and others, everyone has to be careful -- even too careful.

My church has been working on new guidelines for children and youth volunteers based on "safe sanctuaries" principles. An early draft dealt with rest-room supervision, advising: "Volunteers will make sure any rest room used is not occupied by any unknown individual before allowing children and youth to use the facilities."

This caused volunteers who serve as advisers for our senior high group to wonder how feasible or necessary it is to keep 16- or 17-year-olds out of a public rest room if there's even one "unknown" person already using it. Because our senior high group goes on mission trips, you can imagine the difficulty of navigating through highway rest stops or meals while following this policy. You can imagine how independent teenagers would react to close supervision when they go to the bathroom. Eventually, the policy was modified to make it more practical.

The emphasis of child-protection policies is to keep youngsters safe from all kinds of dangers, whether they're walking across a street or entering a public rest room. Policies crafted by lawyers also are meant to shield organizations from liability should the worst happen despite reasonable safeguards.

Key actions are to thoroughly vet professionals and volunteers who interact with minors and to minimize opportunities for adults to be alone with children.

I know. At church? Is nowhere safe or sacred? And when it can be difficult to recruit volunteers to teach Sunday school and lead other activities, is it feasible to have at least two adults with a group of kids at all times?

These precautions can seem excessive. There may be times when it's impractical to comply. Rules never cover every contingency. And the ultimate outcome may be to discourage good people from volunteering to work with kids. Still, there's no going back to the old days of innocence -- when potential dangers too often were downplayed or ignored.

So, yes, running on roads invites the risk of being hit by a car. I'd contend the risk is acceptable, if the kids are careful and properly supervised.

I sure wouldn't advise cross country runners to play football instead. A 300-pound lineman can hit like a truck.

Contact Doug Clark at dgclark@news-record.com or 373-7039.