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How Much Freedom Do We Have Left in Rural America?

What happens elsewhere influences how we behave in Indiana's small towns.

Recently I wrote about an exchange student from Pakistan who was thrilled to be in the U.S. because she had more freedom and opportunities, especially as a girl. She addressed the state staff of the Indiana Farm Service Agency, invited by Julia Wickard.

That was inspiring. Then two weeks later I go to visit vo-ag teachers who are retiring from the profession this year. There are a half-dozen – more than graduated from Purdue University who intend to teach, let alone openings for other reasons.

At Lincoln High School in Cambridge City in Wayne County, far west of Richmond, it took me 10 minutes to get in the building. Half of that was spent trying to find the front door. Every other door was locked.

When I found the front door, I had to be buzzed in. Then they took my picture. "That looks like a mug shot," I told the secretary. "Oh, that's OK, it's so small nobody will notice anyway."

What they were really doing was forming a permanent record that I was in the building. Then the secretary herself escorted me down to see Pat Redden, a retiring ag teacher.

Later in the day at Hagerstown High School, it wasn't a lot different. I had to buzz in. Don Sturgeon, retiring after 40 years of agriculture, had alerted them I was coming. I didn't get my picture taken but I did have to sign in and sign out.

Even 20 years ago no one would have expected this. It sounds like a scene out of George Orwell's novel 1984. When read in the 1960s it seemed to depict a police state. In some ways we've gone far beyond 1984, the novel.

Is it necessary? Sadly, yes. Bad things happen, and when they do the same social media that helps spread good news spreads the news of bad things too. Are students safer behind locked doors? Probably. At least it makes it tougher for someone who might wish harm to carry out his intentions.

But then I think about it. Prisons have locked doors. Prisons have systems where you buzz in and get identified. Fortunately I've never been to one personally but today when kids joke that their school "seems like a prison" they might not be too far off.

Is it a fact of life we must accept in 21st century rural America? Probably. The preventive measures, including an armed security person on duty at one of the schools I visited- a small school, not a school in downtown Indianapolis, deter people, and also show an honest attempt to protect students form harm.

What we may not realize though, is that every time another door is locked or another buzzer system installed to gain entry, we're giving up a bit of freedom – we're acknowledging that society has ills that need to be fixed.

Perhaps it's time to get serious about addressing them, including counseling for students with special needs and more programs to help kids form split home. These things happen, even in rural Indiana. I just don't want to see the day when I can't enter a school to see an ag teacher, even if they do take my picture and file away my information.

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