A Columbus mother and son have inadvertently become international symbols of the loss of American innocence.
This strange whirlwind of international exposure began on a Tuesday afternoon two weeks ago when Lori Pierce found herself considering a request made by her 10-year-old son William.
“He wanted to walk to soccer practice alone,” she said.
The Pierces live near 18th Avenue North. William practices soccer at Cook Elementary, which is about a half-mile from the Pierces” front door.
“I figured, why not?” said Pierce. “I figured it would be a good way for him to learn some independence. He had been out walking with his father the night before and knows how to walk down sidewalks. I had to be at the soccer field in a few minutes anyway, so I gave him my cell phone and sent him on his way.”
William made it as far as Seventh Street North, near what used to be Barnhill”s Buffet, when a Columbus Police Department cruiser stopped the boy. The officer was responding to several 911 calls made by people who had seen William walking the sidewalks alone.
The officer drove William the rest of the way to soccer practice, and then went about the business of tracking down Lori Pierce.
He caught up with her at her son”s soccer practice and proceeded to read her the riot act regarding the safety of her child and potential criminal liability she could have faced had anything horrible happened.
“He told me I could have been charged with child endangerment,” she said. “I was so shocked.”
Although Pierce is quick to point out she never felt anger toward the officer nor the police department, the stern warning given to her by the policeman concerned her deeply.
“I”m sure he said it to scare me, but I just assumed the streets around here were safe,” she said. “I e-mailed (CPD Chief Joseph St. John) to find out what the actual facts were and to say one of his officers might have been a little overvigilant. But what I really wanted to know is whether I ought to be concerned with my child”s safety.”
St. John immediately got back in touch with Pierce to talk with her about her concerns and about the conduct of the officer in question.
“It is safe for your kids to walk in Columbus,” he said. “But we have to remember that something could always happen.”
As to the potential for charges to be levied against Pierce, St. John said that is something which was never going to happen. He also points out the officer was responding to multiple 911 calls — something the CPD has absolutely no control over, but will always respond to, expecting the worst.
“We weren”t going to charge her with anything,” said St. John. “We”re just in a no-win situation here. People will get upset if nothing happens and they feel we do too much, but if something actually had happened they”d be upset we hadn”t done enough.”
After Pierce”s conversation with St. John she began doing her own research and began an online conversation with Manhattan-based syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy at Skenazy”s blog, www.freerangekids.wordpress.com.
“Incredible! It”s like the Salem Witch trial era, when people were hallucinating witchcraft. Today we hallucinate horrific danger in the safest of settings. I am so sorry you — and he — went through this!” Skenazy wrote in response to Pierce.
From the blog, Pierce”s story was picked up by another media entity — the Canadian Broadcasting Co.
Pierce was featured as part of the daily news show, “As It Happens.”
After the radio program aired all across Canada, Pierce received a call from yet another publication, the Dutch news magazine NRC Handelsclab.
In all the interviews Pierce has given, she has refrained from allowing reporters to name her hometown, out of fear it would cast the CPD in a bad light — she has been nothing but complimentary of the department. Instead, she has focused upon the new information she has gathered since she and William had their altercation last week.
She said, in an era when most kids would rather sit inside and play video games or watch television, maybe the practical experience gained from going outside outweighs the danger.
“One thing I”ve discovered is the danger of a child being abducted while they walk the streets is small. The real danger lurks within the walls of people”s homes which is where most of the horrible things that happen to kids happen.
“People get scared because they have no control, but you can”t live your life in fear.”
William, who says he still wants to walk by himself to soccer practice, is getting really tired of doing interviews. It turns out, while he carries a healthy dose of caution when he walks alone, it isn”t some person lurking in the bushes making him nervous.
“Really, I”m mostly scared of the dogs,” he said.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.