The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 17, 2006


A perspective on the Dockham case

As reported on page one, the Carlisle School Director of Food Services has been arrested and fired. Carlisle parents were informed by an e-mail from Carlisle School Superintendent Marie Doyle on Wednesday, February 8, that Dennis Dockham, the Carlisle Public School Director of Food Services, had been arrested by the Dracut Police and charged with "posing children for sexual battery" and "assault and battery on two minors."

In a later message sent to parents on Friday, Doyle announced, "Dockham has not returned to work since his arrest and will not be returning to the Carlisle Public Schools." In Friday's Lowell Sun, it was reported that Dockham had taken digital photos of three children engaging in sex, two of whom were related to Dockham and the other the stepdaughter of a family friend. It should be noted that there was no inappropriate behavior reported on the part of Dockham with Carlisle students or in his work at the Carlisle School cafeteria.

A CORI check (Criminal Offender Record Information) was filed on Dockham, as it is on all school personnel, before he was hired in September 2005, and it reported no criminal record. Dockham had been the Stoneham High School Cafeteria Director until his contract was not renewed for the 2005-06 school year. Dockham told the Carlisle School Search Committee that he had left the school over a budget disagreement. The Stoneham High School Business Manager confirmed this statement. Other reference checks over the phone were all positive, said Doyle.

However, an article last August in the Stoneham Independent newspaper alleged that there had been an FBI investigation of a Stoneham High School employee. "Searching at least one high school computer last June 9 [2005], the FBI was reportedly questioning a school employee in relationship to suspicious online activities..." In that same article, it was intimated that Dennis Dockham was that high school employee. Later in the article the report from the FBI concluded that no illegal activity had occurred in the school itself. Once this August article was brought to the attention of the Carlisle School administration in October, another CORI check was filed on Dockham with similar negative results.

In a phone call to a long-time Carlisle School cafeteria worker, there was nothing but praise for Dockham. "He was a gentleman through and through; he treated me like a queen; he was so good to us; over my many years of work, he was the best boss I ever had; we were all shocked."

Several questions need to be asked. Why didn't officials at the Stoneham High School alert our Superintendent and Business Manager to the FBI investigation of Dockham? What can the Carlisle School do in the future to find out more information when hiring new employees? Since the CORI check only reports on an individual's possible criminal record, might more specific questions be asked of past employers of a new employee such as Dockham? Parents of school-age children are particularly concerned that this procedure will be examined and improved for use in the future by the school search committee.

Some personal thoughts on this serious incident come to mind. There has been child molestation and other perversions since the beginning of time. Can it be that going online and learning that there are others out there taking part in similar sexual activities with children gives one the feeling of permission to take part in such acts? And with more explicit sex in movies, on television, and almost anywhere you look these days, it would seem harder and harder for individuals to repress sexual cravings that in the past might have brought on feelings of guilt, inhibiting any action. This does not excuse what Dockham has been accused of, but one has to wonder.

Design intelligence

We humans are exceedingly well designed. We are equipped with five senses, which enable us to fully comprehend our surroundings. We can balance on two feet rather than four, so we're mobile and agile. Our opposable thumbs give us the ability to make things that other creatures cannot. We also have something called imagination, which allows us to dwell in worlds beyond our own that may or may not actually exist. We're a clever bunch, all right. But perhaps the most interesting thing about human beings is that we're perpetually dissatisfied. This is very useful because it drives us to invent new things all the time. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of homo sapiens may well be that we are not content — ever — with the status quo.

This inner urge to remake the world around us and reengineer how we inhabit it is at the root of what it means to be a designer. It's an innate quality that we all share, regardless of our formal training. We all have the desire to shape our environment, influence events, and build a better, healthier, safer, and more prosperous world. Everything that takes us in that direction is an act of design.

Just about anything can be seen as a design problem because everything is ripe for improvement. This includes not only what we do (products), but how we do it (processes). Take popcorn, for example. Whether we make it from scratch or stick a prepackaged bag in the microwave, we get essentially the same results; it's the process that makes all the difference.

Good design gives us a jolt, shaking up our ordinary view of the world. Sometimes it's so simple, it seems mundane, like putting wheels on luggage, and sometimes it seems magical, like putting a gigabyte of memory into a laptop computer. Baby boomers are old enough to remember when ATMs appeared. They were an entirely new way of dealing with money, and people were pretty suspicious at first. ATM technology essentially turned banks into vending machines and telephones into banks. When's the last time you actually talked to a teller?

One of my favorite stories about design is the classic problem that is given to beginning students in typography. It turns out that when young children begin to read, they sometimes confuse the lower-case letters b, g, p, and q because they look pretty similar. The problem is to modify the letters to make them easily distinguishable without reinventing the entire alphabet. Usually, the graphics students come up with squiggly variations of the basic forms. But one of them, a friend of mine named Bruce, saw the problem in an entirely different way. When asked what his solution was, he put a quarter on the teacher's desk. "What's this?" asked the teacher. "That's my solution," said Bruce. "I figure that if you give the kids a quarter every time they get it right, they'll learn fast enough." Bruce was thinking like a designer. He got an A.

Because we all play a part in shaping the world around us, everyone can be a designer. This applies not only to things like buildings and products, but also ideas and processes, including education, art, and politics. The necessary corollary is that we're responsible for the results. Because we are all trustees of the future, our biggest challenge is to make sure that we will be fondly remembered by the next generation as good ancestors. All it takes is a little design intelligence.


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2006 The Carlisle Mosquito