What Is A "Playground"?

Falmouth is a mid-sized town in York County, southern Maine. According to the 2000 US Census, Falmouth occupies an area of 37.4 square miles (7.8 of them under water), and has a population of 10,310. There are four public schools in Falmouth - two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. The middle school is not far from the two elementary schools, and Falmouth High School is right down the road from the Middle School.

The Maze Craze playground is a public playground on the grounds of the Plummer-Motz school in Falmouth. The playground is shared by the Lunt School, a smaller public elementary school next door.

One of the first questions Attorney Coles put to Debbie Johnson, principal of the Lunt School, was, "Is there a playground at the middle school?" Now, one would think that this is a straightforward question that could easily be answered either "yes" or "no". However, Ms. Johnson's response began with a hem and a haw and an, "I don't really know, I don't know whether there's a playground there..." She went on to speak about how there had been a group of parents in town who had discussed raising money to build a playground at the middle school, but wasn't personally familiar with the status of the negotiations. She ruminated on her uncertainty about whether there might or might not be a playground at the local middle school.

Such confusion might be understandable if Ms. Johnson were principal of a school in Boston or New York City, whose school districts encompass many schools, many square miles, and hundreds of thousands of students. But she's not. She's principal of an elementary school in Falmouth, Maine.

In fact, there is no playground at the middle school, and there has never been one there. It was preposterous for Ms. Johnson to assert such ignorance - whether that ignorance was feigned or actual. It was preposterous to suggest that a playground *might* have been built and she, as one of the highest-ranking school employees in town, would have been unaware of it.

The next witness was the Director of Special Services, Polly . Attorney Coles asked her, "Does the middle school have a playground?" She replied, "Actually, I'm not an expert... at this point, I can't tell you... A playground can be anything from a set of swings to a plain old field because that's where kids play."

In other words, let the "good kids" play at the nice playground with modern equipment; let the autistic kid play by himself in a field. Separate but equal? Hardly. Brown v. Board of Education, anyone?

In both instances, the defendants' responses to very straightforward questions were remarkably convoluted. They seemed to be going to great lengths to suggest that Jan had alternate places to play that were equal in quality to the Maze Craze. And I do say "suggest," because it would be perjury for either to specifically claim that there was another playground in the town of Falmouth besides the Maze Craze.

Several features make a modern village or urban playground a playground:

  1. The opportunity to play with other children.
  2. Modern play equipment.
  3. Benches and tables, water fountains, restrooms — in other words, amenities.

Do a Google search for "what is a playground?" and the first definition that you find is, "an area where many people go for recreation." Another definition: "a public outdoor area where people can swing, run, climb and have fun together." And another: "a well-designed playground will provide opportunities for the player to add increasing levels of challenge to their play." Many people. Together. Well-designed. Opportunities to add increasing levels of challenge. A playground is NOT "a naked space where one child is banished to play alone."

Jan did not have alternate places to play that provided not only an opportunity for physical activity (you can get that pacing the living room), but that included the pleasurable amenities made available to every other child in town, and that afforded the opportunity for social interaction available at the Maze Craze.

All this obtuseness just to avoid just saying "No, there is no playground at the middle school." However, to make such an admission would also constitute an admission that by banning Jan from the Maze Craze playground, the school employees were banning an autistic child from the only playground in town.

August 22, 2004

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