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Senseless: Is Our Fear Misplaced?

Posted - Feb. 22, 2004 at 11:40 a.m.



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Your killer could be in your house at this very moment.

Maybe it's in the kitchen, where your shelves are larded with high-fat munchies. Or out on the patio, where you keep your smokes. Or in the den, where you park yourself in front of the television instead of hitting the treadmill.

You'll never see round-the-clock coverage about the dangers of not wearing seat belts or family histories of heart trouble, but they have a lot more to do with your survival than random acts of violent crime.

"It is in the nature of the human perspective to focus on the most immediate and dramatic risk that we experience, as opposed to the less dramatic risks," said Jim Walsh, senior editor at Los Angeles-based Silver Lake Publishing. The company has recently published "Protect Yourself: Using Insurance, Security Techniques, and Common Sense to Keep Yourself, Your Family and Your Things Safe."

Focusing on rare but sexy risk factors "is sort of hard-wired into human psychology," Walsh said. "It's the reason people tend to focus on a plane crash instead of wearing a seat belt, or terrorism instead of smoking."

Gwinnett's attention these days is focused on two unrelated but equally horrifying random crimes. On Tuesday, jury selection got under way in the death-penalty trial of a man accused of snatching a woman and her child from a public park, then killing them. On Wednesday, a Lilburn couple whose daughter was attacked with a hammer two years ago, sued the Gwinnett County school system.

Wesley Harris is on trial for the killing of Whitney Land and 2-year-old Jordan in 1999. Their bodies were discovered in Land's burning car in Lawrenceville. Chad Hagaman will face trial on aggravated battery and other charges from the 2002 attack on a Mountain Park Elementary School fourth-grader.

Walsh says six morbidity factors --- diet, smoking, seat belt use, drinking, family health history and exercise are "way more important to any of us than schizophrenics with hammers or random events in the park or even al-Qaida."

But the hammer attack and the Lands' abduction and killing shattered the serenity of what most people consider havens.

"We'll never again feel the same sense of security," said Sandy Leake. Her now-12-year-old daughter, beaten with a claw hammer by a man who walked in the front door of Mountain Park, continues to have trouble with her memory and with understanding things she sees and hears, according to the lawsuit Leake and her husband, Alan, have filed. They seek damages for their daughter's injuries and to force security reforms at other Gwinnett schools.

Regardless of the outcome, the case will linger in parents' minds, said school safety expert Kenneth S. Trump.

"Schools have learned in a post-Columbine era that it only takes one incident to put your name on the map," said Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. He stresses safety plans and urges school districts to view safety not just in terms of lawsuits and insurance claims, but in academic performance as well.

"Students are not going to be able to achieve at their maximum ability if their thoughts are dominated by safety concerns," he said. "Safety and academic performance go hand in hand."

In a statement, the Gwinnett school system said it took all possible precautions to make Mountain Park safe.

"It is tragic but true that violence in society sometimes preys on children," the statement read. "This incident was an extremely rare occurrence of random violence that could not be predicted nor prevented."

Harold Copus, a former FBI agent, is a frequent commentator on safety issues. His tips include: Give kids whistles to sound an alarm; get behind the driver's seat if you're ever abducted so you can fight your captor more effectively; make the biggest ruckus you can if someone tries to snatch you. But he doesn't expect even the safest of places, like a school or public park, to be impregnable.

"There is an expectation of safety, but I think it's tempered by reasonableness," said Copus, now a partner at Atlanta-based Investigative Solutions, a private investigative firm. "I think it's unreasonable to assume that a school is not able to be penetrated."

Statistics may give more comfort than headlines do when random, violent crime is in the news.

According to the National School Safety Center's Report on School-Associated Violent Deaths, there were six such violent deaths nationwide during the 2002-03 school year. From the 1992-93 school year to the present, there have been a total of 18 such deaths in Georgia, the report says.

For details, go to www.nssc1.org.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says there were 115 kidnappings in 1999, the most recent year for which numbers are available. Of the kidnapped children, 46 were killed and 69 were returned.

For details, go to www.missingkids.com.

Of course, all the numbers in the world mean nothing when your child becomes a victim.

"It's made us much more cognizant of the fragility of life," Sandy Leake said of her daughter's ordeal. "When the unthinkable happens to you, statistics no longer mean very much."

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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