Update – 3:45 p.m.: Wootton High School principal Michael Doran has denied the cell tower proposal for Wootton’s stadium.
In a message posted to the school’s website, Doran wrote, “After careful consideration of AT&T’s request to place a cell tower on Wootton’s property and your clear and strong opposition to the proposal, it has been decided that we will not move forward with the proposal. I thank you for your continued support of Wootton and our community.”
Original report – 11:20 a.m.:
If there were parents at a community meeting Tuesday night who supported placing a cell tower at Thomas S. Wootton High School, none of them spoke up.
The meeting at the Rockville school was a one-sided affair, with parents concerned about risks to their children’s health unanimously decrying the proposal. One parent even said that Wootton Principal Michael Doran should be embarrassed for putting parents through the discussion.
At the beginning of the session, a representative of AT&T attempted to deliver a brief presentation about the tower, which would be added to one of the football stadium’s light poles, but wasn’t able to finish before the first parent interrupted her as a projector screen displayed an image of the tower.
“You’re planning to put that right next to our kids?” the woman screamed. Shouts followed from parents complaining they didn’t get proper notice of the meeting and voicing safety concerns regarding radiation emitted from the towers. The woman then said she would never allow a tower near the school. “Who’s with me? No!” she shouted, and the entire room began chanting “No!”
Wootton Assistant Principal Jeff Brown walked over and attempted to calm the woman, before telling her she might have to leave. “You will leave!” she responded. “That’s not going next to my children.”
During an hourlong airing of concerns, parents cited studies about the danger of radiation and other risks surrounding cell towers. Among the comments:
“I can’t even imagine how it could possibly be considered to expose our children to something you have no idea what the health risks are.”
“There’s no amount of money that can justify the risk.”
“I don’t understand how this is even an idea.”
One parent mentioned that the school, with Doran as principal, rejected a cell tower proposal in 2004. “Why are we having this conversation again?” she asked.
Doran wasn’t in the room Tuesday night until about 7:45, as the meeting concluded. He’d put Brown in charge of the session while he attended an assembly elsewhere at the school. Parents weren’t happy about his absence.
“I’m disappointed he’s not here tonight,” said David S. De Jong, a parent and attorney who promised a legal effort to fight the cell tower if the plan moves forward. De Jong compared the current level of research regarding cell towers to research on the risk of cigarettes in the 1950s.
When Doran arrived, he greeted a crowd of about 75 angry parents. He assured them that no final decision has been made regarding the tower and asked that they talk to him respectfully. “We’re not an evil empire,” Doran said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at income and exploring it.”
This wouldn’t be the first cell tower at a Montgomery County public school. Towers are already in place at 11 county schools, including four high schools—Watkins Mill, Sherwood, Albert Einstein and James Hubert Blake. Dana Tofig, spokesman for the schools, said the towers will have brought in a total of $831,818 in the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The AT&T rep said it’s not known how much revenue a tower at Wootton could generate because negotiations with the school system have not yet occurred.
But a boost in funds for the school didn’t interest the parents. The parents even criticized the school system for permitting the towers at other schools, and some wondered aloud if communities in more moderate- or lower-income areas had been taken advantage of.
Janis Sartucci, a school advocate who operates the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County blog, said at the meeting that the schools’ Real Estate Management Strategic Plan lists “Communities’ opposition to cell towers” as a threat.
“I resent that,” Sartucci said. “I’m not a threat.”
The strategic plan is posted on the schools’ website.
One parent asked Doran after he arrived, “This entire room is opposed to this; what can we do next time to make it clear we don’t want the tower?”
Then Doran set off the parents again by implying that although they’re clearly involved in this emotionally-charged issue, they don’t get involved in others. He said, “… yet when you have a chance to get involved in the school, then come out, too, because guess what, you don’t.”
Shouts rang out again, and parents asked Doran to say no to the tower on the spot.
Doran wouldn’t do that, but he added that he “will put something out within a day” on the issue.
Tofig noted in an email sent last week that “if a school does not want a cell tower located on their property, it is not placed there.”
Even if it’s approved by the school, AT&T would have to go through the county process for locating a cell tower, as well, according to Tofig. That would provide community at least one more opportunity to air its concerns.
The American Cancer Society wrote on its website about the health risks of cell towers, “Some people have expressed concern that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems. At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea.”
Picture: A scan of a portion of a handout being given out by a parent before the meeting: