Security measures now needed in small towns

February 17, 2008 11:00 pm

Regrettable, but necessary signs of the times are in action at Sonora High School and at the Courthouse:

• More than $100,000 worth of security equipment, including X-rays and metal detectors are now used to screen those entering the 110-year-old Tuolumne County Courthouse and the county's court building at 60 North Washington Street in Sonora. State funds paid for the equipment, but staffing costs must be borne by the county.

• Twenty-four digital surveillance cameras have been installed on the high school's Shaws Flat Road campus and will keep an electronic eye on lockers, classrooms and other parts of the school grounds 24/7. The cameras were bought with more than $30,000 in state funds earmarked specifically for security.

For many who have hung onto the notion that the Mother Lode is a safe place where homes and cars are left unlocked and neighbors can be trusted, the new security equipment may come as shock. Has our county really become such a dangerous, perilous place?

Others may vow that courtroom and campus violence that has become an unfortunate staple of national news "can never happen here."

Unfortunately it already has. On April 2, 1993, in Jamestown's tiny and since-closed courtroom, Ellie Nesler pulled a pistol from her purse and fired five shots into the back of the head of a man accused of molesting her young son.

Although no shots have been fired in local courtrooms since, the rest of the nation has not been so lucky. In 2005, a rape defendant shot a judge and three others in an Atlanta court. Last year a man being chased after a fight broke out in a Contra Costa County courtroom shot and injured one of his pursuers. Also in 2007, a man smuggled a sawed-off shotgun into in a rural New York courtroom, fired at a woman who had accused him of sexual abuse and narrowly missed hitting the judge.

Our courtrooms are arenas for conflict resolution and those conflicts can reach a boil by the time the judge drops his gavel. Although voices are raised and punches are thrown far more often than weapons are raised, the line can sometimes become ragged.

A few years ago a brawl involving 10 people broke out after a Tuolumne County judge announced his decision in a dog-shooting case. According to police reports, the combatants were "scrambling, wrestling, throwing punches and shouting obscenities."

What if one of them had brought a gun to court? Would he have a fired a round in the heat of battle?

With the new court security system, that's not likely to happen.

At Sonora High, cameras alone cannot stop a school shooters bent on violence. So far — perhaps thanks to alert teachers and involved counselors — local problems that could have potentially led to violence have been nipped in the bud.

Where Sonora High's cameras will pay off is in catching a few vandals, thieves and taggers and in deterring many more. Unfortunately, their crimes are still problems on our high school campuses. Less than three years ago, in fact, vandals did more than $10,000 damage at Summerville High.

Can cameras stop such vandals? With the state footing the bill, it's a reasonable bet to make.

Some may find these security measures expensive and inconvenient. But we live in dangerous times and the consequences of failing to protect ourselves would be far more dire.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.