Excerpt from “The Price of Silence”
“Oh, you’re here, great,” Kat said suddenly, piling her things on the desk next to Robyn.
“Yeah,” Robyn said, feeling like a barnacle on a boat.
Kat sat down at her desk. “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad today.”
“Where is everybody?”
“Mondays and Wednesdays are nuts,” Kat said. “The paper comes out on Tuesday and Thursday, so most of the time, the rest of the week is like this.”
“This is better,” Robyn said, glancing over her shoulder.
“I agree.” Kat stood. “Ready?”
“For what?” Robyn asked, stumbling to her feet.
“An interview with Findley.”
“Now?” Robyn asked as the panic caught up with her again.
“Yeah, my story for Tuesday is on campus crime and what they plan to do about it.”
“Campus crime?” Alarm bells rang in her head.
“We’ve always had cars broken into and stuff taken from lockers, but this year seems worse than usual,” Kat said as she led the way out of the newsroom.
“I don’t know really. It’s a guess, but word has it that when Reese Jones took over the Scorpions, their initiation process got a lot tougher.”
“The Scorpions?” Robyn asked more alarmed than before.
“James Madison’s version of the Mafia,” Kat said, nodding. “Our very own, home grown gang bangers.”
Gangs? Robyn had heard of them, of course, but she’d never thought she’d see one up close and personal.
“So, what’s Findley going to do about it?” Robyn asked, intrigued with the topic despite the fear lurking just behind her consciousness.
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
In ten minutes they were sitting in Mr. Findley’ office, and somehow it looked different today. Less threatening. Robyn was sure it was because this time she had Kat by her side.
“The number of reported crimes around school has almost doubled in the last six months,” Kat said, sounding every bit the big city crime reporter. “What plans do you have to combat this problem?”
“Well, Miss Layton, we’ve already implemented the security patrol around school. Their presence has helped,” Mr. Findley, a gray-haired man of almost sixty, said as if that should answer all questions.
“How has that helped? Crime has gone up,” Kat said not letting him off the hook.
“Well, we feel their visible presence on campus helps to deter crime in certain higher crime areas.”
“What do they look like—the campus patrol, I mean?” Robyn asked much to the surprise of everyone in the room.
“They’re the guys in the blue jackets that walk the halls during and between classes,” Kat said dismissively as she focused on the next question in her notebook.
“Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” Robyn said, speaking her thoughts as they crossed her mind. “I didn’t even know they existed, which seems kind of strange because I’ve been caught in the halls after the bell’s rung several times during the last three days. It seems like one of them would’ve asked what I was doing.”
“Well, we only have ten of them, and they can’t cover every hallway all the time,” Mr. Findley said, sliding toward the defensive.
“So, they only work if they happen to be where the trouble happens?” Robyn asked clearly unconvinced. “Sounds pretty ineffective to me.”
“Well, we had to start somewhere, Miss Lockhart.” Mr. Findley’s tone registered a trace of annoyance.
“Do you have security cameras?” Robyn asked totally into the interview now and forgetting that she was supposed to be only observing.
“We’re looking into that, but it’s only one of several options at this point.”
“What other things are you considering? Parking lot patrol? Metal detectors? Student Crime Stoppers?” Robyn asked.
Mr. Findley bristled under the barrage of questions. “Those are all options.”
“Does the state give you any money for all of this? I mean putting this stuff in place can’t be cheap,” Kat said, breaking into the conversation.
“No, it’s not cheap.” Mr. Findley sighed. “And no, for the most part the funds we get are not supposed to be used for these things—they’re mostly for new textbooks, computer equipment, facility improvement that sort of thing.”
“It seems to me that textbooks and computer equipment aren’t going to help a whole lot if the students don’t feel safe,” Kat said. “Shouldn’t their safety be a paramount consideration?”
“It is, I assure you. We’re doing everything we can to keep our students safe while they’re on our campus.”
“What about the Scorpions?” Robyn asked, jumping into the topic foremost in her mind. “How are you dealing with them?”
“The Scorpions.” Mr. Findley looked from Robyn to Kat and back again, and Robyn felt Kat straighten at her elbow. “Well, as with any other group that threatens the well-being of the students, they are being dealt with in the fairest way possible.”
“How?” Robyn asked again.
“How?” He scratched his nose. “Well, the best way to explain it is to say it’s on a case-by-case basis, I suppose. It’s not easy to link an entire group to a crime and make things stick. You can only convict the person who actually commits the crime.”
“Okay,” Robyn said slowly as she pieced together what he was really saying. “So, let’s say someone is being initiated into a gang, and they’re told to swipe a stereo. If that person is caught, then that person and not the gang is punished?”
Mr. Findley nodded. “That’s correct.”
Robyn had no pen and no paper, and she hoped Kat was taking good notes. “Well, what if a school-sponsored group were to require their potential members to commit a crime to get in, what would happen then?”
Mr. Findley sat in silence for a long moment. “Well, I suppose their right to operate on the campus would be revoked.”
“So, what you’re saying is if you’re legal, the whole group gets punished, but if you’re not, nothing happens to the group, only to the person unfortunate enough to get caught,” Robyn said.
“Doesn’t seem quite fair when you put it like that,” Mr. Findley said with a sigh, “but yes, I suppose that’s what I’m saying.”
“So, the only real way to get the Scorpions or any other gang off the campus is to catch and convict every one of its members,” Robyn said, zeroing in on the real story. “How many members are there in this gang?”
“It’s hard to say.” Mr. Findley rubbed his nose as if he was battling a monstrous headache.
“Some reports say up to a 100 or more,” Kat mumbled as she scribbled furiously in her notebook.
“So,” Robyn said, disliking the picture that all the pieces of this puzzle were making, “theoretically, they could commit 100 or more crimes, and if they are all caught by your group of ten guys in blue suits, and if they haven’t added any more members, and if they actually go to jail or something for every crime, then the halls will be safe for the other students?”
Mr. Findley sat like a stone statue.
“May we take that as a yes?” Kat asked, looking up, her pen poised for the answer.
“All I can say is we’re doing our best to prevent and reduce crime on campus,” Mr. Findley said, emphasizing each word. “We’re implementing policies and incorporating new rules to combat the problem.”
“And while you’re doing that, are we as students just sitting ducks?” Robyn asked pointedly.
“Or are there things we can do to help ourselves?” Kat asked quickly softening the question.
“Well, as a matter of fact, there are several things you can do—like making sure your cars and lockers are secure. Don’t leave valuables in them if at all possible. As far as in school, keep your eyes open and report any strange activity. If you’re here at night, use the buddy system to go to cars…”
“So, we’re not talking about just robbery then. Are we, Mr. Findley?” Kat asked, breaking into the list.
He sighed heavily. “No, Miss Layton. We’re not.”
A shiver ran up Robyn’s spine. Suddenly this wasn’t about playing reporters any more. This was serious. “Has someone been attacked?”
“Back in February, a girl was jumped out by the gym,” Kat said, not letting the look Mr. Findley gave her intimidate her into sweeping the story under the carpet. “Luckily a couple of people came along just as it happened. She was okay, but it not long after that, she transferred.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t be everywhere at once,” Mr. Findley said clearly on the defensive now. “Students have to use their heads and not get themselves into a position where they can easily be injured or harmed.”
“Like the hallways between classes,” Robyn laughed with a shake of her head.
“The hallways, Miss Lockhart?”
“Yeah, I got knocked down the other day, and I was almost trampled to death.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Findley said, more guardedly than the statement warranted.
“You know, come to think of it, how do I know whoever did that to me, didn’t do it on purpose?” Robyn asked, suddenly seeing the incident in a whole new light.
Mr. Findley tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“Are you kidding? Even a naïve girl from Iowa can see the potential for crime in that hallway. Three thousand students and what, ten security people? One knockdown in a crowded, frenzied hallway? Shoot, by the time you get your bearings back, your stuff could be halfway to Mexico.”
Kat nodded. “She’s got a point.”
“Yes, I believe she does,” Mr. Findley finally agreed as he opened a folder on his desk and studied something. “In fact, that’s a problem that has just started surfacing. I’ve had three complaints about incidents just like that cross my desk in the last week.”
“So, the halls aren’t as safe as we think they are then?” Kat asked, intrigued.
“Apparently we have a long way to go in securing the building.” Mr. Findley looked at them both. “I honestly wish there was some way to ensure that every student was safe every second of every day they’re here, but I can’t. Maybe the two of you can get the word out so the students can help us help them. It would be a start anyway.”
“It can’t hurt,” Robyn said suddenly seeing a myriad of things she had done wrong in the last week.
“Well, thanks for your time, Mr. Findley.” Kat closed her notebook and shook his hand.
“Thank you, Miss Layton, and you too, Miss Lockhart.” Mr. Findley stood and shook their hands. “I’m glad you decided to join the newspaper staff, but I’m thinking I’d better be more prepared for interviews after this.”
They all laughed, and then Kat and Robyn made their way out of the office. They were almost out of the building before either of them spoke again.
“I don’t care what you say,” Kat said. “You’re joining the staff.”
It seemed like only seconds before Robyn was back home sitting at her own kitchen table trying to concentrate on Trig. But Trig was the last thing on her mind. This story was big. Much bigger than anything she’d ever worked on at Lakota. It was downright frightening to think that at any moment in the hallway she could be the victim of a crime.
She reviewed the knockdown incident again, and it was clear that no one except Kat had even noticed or cared that she was in trouble. How easy would it have been for someone to grab her stuff and be gone? Too easy, she thought with a shiver.
“I wonder what kids who’ve been going there all their lives think about this,” she said, tapping her pencil on her Trig homework lost in thought. “Do they see the threat? Or are they so used to being bounced around in the hallway, they don’t even think about it?”
One way or the other, she needed to find out. She pulled a clean sheet of paper out of her notebook and scribbled a few questions down. Tomorrow she would do a little unofficial polling of her own.