Disney attack could have been prevented

To borrow from Dickens, June has been the worst of times for Orange County. Within a period of just several days, this central Florida community experienced not one, but two tragic attacks. First came the massacre of 49 nightclub patrons at the hands of an American citizen and deranged Islamic terrorist. Next came the horrific death of 2-year old Lane Graves, whose family was vacationing at Disney World when he was killed by an alligator.

Last Tuesday at approximately 9:30pm, Melissa and Matt Graves, their son Lane and his two siblings were frolicking on a narrow strip of beach at the Grand Floridian resort, which fronts a large lagoon. Lane’s parents were fully aware of the warning signs that said “No swimming, Steep Drop-Off”. Still they allowed little Lane to wander away from the family, and wade a foot or so into the lagoon.

Suddenly an alligator (estimated at between four and seven feet long) emerged from the dark waters and grabbed the boy. Efforts by both parents to wrestle their toddler away from the gator were unsuccessful, and within seconds, the creature had taken Lane under. It was the last time they saw their son, until being called to identify his body nearly two days later.

Social media platforms were abuzz with cruel comments about Melissa and Matt, and how they should be charged with criminal negligence. Those criticisms began to subside, however, as more was learned about Disney’s role in the attack.

Disney World staffers were quoted as saying that patrons had been feeding pretzels and other snacks to alligators for years, causing more of the giant reptiles to wander onto the beaches more often. Those employees reportedly told their bosses that a protective fence should be erected to keep gators away from guests and vice versa. Those requests were repeatedly ignored. And just as Orange County officials were boasting that this was the first gator attack in the history of Disney World, a New Hampshire man came forward to tell about how he was also attacked many years ago while his family was staying at Fort Wilderness. Within days of Lane’s death, Disney came under fire for not having posted signs that specifically warned of alligators. By the next weekend, signs to that effect were visible throughout the lagoon area, and protective barriers were being erected.

Clearly Disney bears some responsibility for the fatal gator attack, and at least one legal expert says a massive law suit could be forthcoming. Attorney Joseph Balice told that the Graves family, “could sue Disney for wrongful death and possibly negligent infliction of emotional distress.” But before we all jump on the “let’s get Disney” bandwagon, it might be prudent to take a step back and, with all due respect for their loss, examine the parents’ role in this tragedy.

Twelve years ago my wife Pam and I stayed at the Grand Floridian resort, and we walked the same narrow stretch of beach where last week’s attack occurred. Signs were posted in several places, warning us not to swim, and notifying us that the lagoon had a steep drop-off. Because of those signs and the visible drop-off, no one in their right mind should let a toddler wander into even the shallowest part of the lagoon. Had little Lane taken a few more steps, the water would have been over his head, and he could have drowned. And so, even absent the gator attack, Lane’s parents were grossly negligent. I’d like to say that their negligence was an isolated problem, but the truth is, if you believe that even one useless death is one too many, then child abuse and neglect is reaching epidemic proportions.

According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), over 1,500 children die each year from either abuse or neglect. The majority of cases involve children from infancy to age three, and while many of those deaths are the result of physical abuse, an increasing number are due to drowning, fires, and other mishaps which occurred because of neglectful or inattentive parents.

Back in 1993, the US Fire Administration reported that in one year alone, eleven children died in fires while left alone by their parents. Today that number has increased to around 300. In 2013, a Canadian couple left their two small boys in the same apartment with a 14 foot pet python. The giant snake broke out of its cage and killed the boys. Two years ago, a three year old boy, his Dad and Grandfather were observing jaguars at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas, when the grandfather lifted the toddler onto the top rail overlooking the jaguar enclosure. The boy fell into the enclosure, was mauled, but fortunately survived. Then there was last month’s Cincinnati Zoo fiasco in which a young Mother failed to keep an eye on her 4 year old son who fell into a gorilla enclosure. Again the boy survived, but parental negligence almost cost him his life. And also earlier this year a two-year old Dearborn girl drowned in a neighbor’s pool. No adults were anywhere to be found, including her Mother. Apparently, though, justice is harsher in Michigan for negligent parents because the Mother was arrested and charged with her daughter’s death. Said Wayne County prosecutor Lynn Worthy, “Once again we are left with a child whose death was completely preventable.”

Perhaps that approach to justice is spreading, even to cases where no actual harm befalls the child. Recently a New Jersey judge ruled that a Mother was guilty of neglect for leaving her 19 monthold child in a car unattended while she ran into the store for a few minutes. Said Judge Clarkson Fisher, “A parent invites sustained peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a vehicle, no matter how briefly.” Lane Graves was only a few months older than the New Jersey child who had been left in a car, yet Lane’s parents won’t be charged by Florida prosecutors for contributing to his grizzly death. And, in addition to the human loss they suffered, the Graves’ negligence also resulted in financial losses for the City and County, whose combined 60 rescue personnel worked night and day to search for their child.

No doubt Disney should have had signs in place warning of alligators, and their guest relations staff should have been required to educate visiting parents about the dangers of the lagoon and local predators. But increasingly it seems that parents also need basic parenting education, along with a dose of common sense.

When and where that instruction takes place is up for debate. The need to better protect the lives of our children is not. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).