Care and Feeding

How Can I Be Sure My School Takes Gun Threats Seriously?

Photo illustration of parent looking extremely worried while leaning against daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school teacher, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

Recently, my 11-year-old daughter “Sophie” came home from school and told me that a boy in her class threatened to hold a gun up to another little girl’s head because he was mad at her. She went on to explain that the teacher got quite upset about this happening and took all the children that witnessed the event to another room to talk to the children and the principal about what happened. The child who made the threat was in school the following day.

As a parent, this concerned me greatly. I am wondering if this situation was taken seriously enough. I want to know: Is my child safe attending that school? Does that little boy have access to guns? Were the police notified? What exactly is being done to prevent this from actually happening? I wrote my concerns in an email to the teacher, and his response shocked me. In his first email, he said he had no knowledge of the event that Sophie described. I found this very odd as Sophie explained it very clearly. She is 11, so it is possible that some details got left out or added in, but to make up the whole scenario seems very out of character. He said he would speak with her and get back to me.

His follow-up email indicated that he spoke with Sophie and with the administration and said that the situation is being dealt with at an administrative level and did not provide any other information. As a parent, I am not satisfied with this response. I expect more details. I want to know that my child is safe. Am I out of line? Am I owed a better explanation as to what is happening in that school?

—Concerned Momma

Dear Concerned Momma,

That’s so scary. I totally sympathize with your fears. We live in a world where, unfortunately, the threat of gun violence in our schools is very real. My heart goes out to the families in Colorado who have most recently seen this threat turn into tragedy.

I’m a little confused. Are the teacher who got upset and Sophie’s classroom teacher different people? If not, that means either the teacher or Sophie is lying about what happened, which as you said is unlikely. If so, it’s still strange that the other teacher didn’t relay the information to Sophie’s classroom teacher. This is a serious issue, and all adults in the school who interact with the child should be made aware so they can monitor and intervene if necessary.

It’s natural for you to want more information, but there are some things that you may not be able to find out. Assuming Sophie goes to a public school that receives federal funds, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) protects students’ records. The teacher and administration are not allowed to give you specifics about what happened to the child who made the threat. They cannot tell you about possible motivations, family issues, or consequences. Unfortunately, they can’t even tell you if he has access to a gun. They can tell appropriate authorities if they have concerns.

And they can tell you about the school’s established safety protocols and/or plans to prevent future violence. I’d inquire with the administration about those. Are they discussing the issue of school violence with the children? (I mean, other than lockdown drills.) Do school counselors teach lessons about what students should do if they are threatened or witness someone else being threatened? Are they inviting guest speakers or having special assemblies about the issue? Is there a school resource officer in the building? Because of FERPA, school officials can’t tell you whether they reported the incident to law enforcement, but you can certainly request that they do or, depending how passionate you feel about it, I suppose you could do it yourself.

Whatever you do, encourage your daughter to keep speaking up when things like this occur. Often, a teacher’s best chance at intervention comes from student tips.

—Ms. Scott

I am a high school teacher at a magnet school, where we are frequently ranked as No. 1 in my county, and we are high in the state. I have taught social studies here for six years. My school eliminated standard classes before I got here, so I teach ninth grade honors, but that is actually the lowest-level class.

I am struggling with the appropriate level of “rigor” to have in this class. My department chair thinks I am not rigorous enough. He wants more reading at home and more frequent testing. I’ve been told by my students that I give the most work and my tests are the hardest. Obviously I take their feedback with a grain of salt. But every year I have more and more students with poor grades. They say they study, their test scores say otherwise, and it’s hard to tell if they’re lying to me about the work they put in at home.

My homework is reading and taking textbook notes for an open-notes quiz that we have about every other week, as well as studying for quizzes and tests. It would never be a random worksheet unless a student is making something up from class time. My school has a huge problem with student anxiety and overall mental health. I don’t want to add to the gigantic workloads I know they already have. I should also add that I attended a small, college prep all-girls high school myself where it was run like a college seminar. I want to push back on the workload pressure here but maintain high standards. I don’t feel like my department chair understands the stress of the kids, and he isn’t helpful on this.

—Seeking Balance

Dear Seeking Balance,

A number of years ago when I was teaching AP English, one of my students complained to me about her AP U.S. History teacher. She said she hated his class because it was “hard” but she liked my class because it was “easy.” I bristled at this. I did not consider my class easy at all; in fact, I worked very hard to create a college-level syllabus. But I took a breath and asked her what she meant. She was frustrated in history because she received low grades on her essays, but she didn’t understand why. In my class, I taught students the essay rubric and helped them plan, draft, and revise their essays. His class was “hard” because she didn’t understand the expectations or how to improve. Mine was “easy” because she felt confident that she could succeed. But was my course less “rigorous”?

Academic rigor is difficult to define and is also difficult to discuss when there isn’t a shared definition. In general, rigor refers to the level of academic challenge. But what constitutes challenge? For some teachers, “rigor” means heavy workloads. For others, “rigor” is about critical thinking rather than the quantity of work. In my view, an appropriate level of challenge will depend on the students themselves. A text isn’t rigorous if no one reads it; nor is it truly challenging if the students can’t understand what they read.

I can’t determine whether your class is appropriately challenging based on this letter, but I agree that more homework and more tests does not necessarily mean more “rigor.” Reflect on your professional experience and values as an educator. What does “rigor” mean to you? What does it look like in your course? And why is it that many students are not succeeding? Are they struggling in all of their classes, or just yours? Are there ways you can better support them in meeting challenging expectations? Of course, these are not easy questions to answer! I struggle with these myself. But taking the time to reflect will prepare you for future discussions with your department chair.

I encourage you to push back in defense of your students. Their mental health is important—more important than the school’s rank or reputation. If the pressure of this school is damaging their well-being, it’s important for teachers to be part of the solution. This doesn’t mean you are lowering standards. Academic challenge isn’t just about workload—it’s also about the type of work, and the type of thinking students engage in. Given that you’re seeing a drop in grades over time, students probably need something different, not more of the same.

I know such conversations aren’t easy, as I’ve had similar ones myself. Collect data—grades, of course, but you might also look for feedback from students (and maybe even parents) about their levels of stress and anxiety. Stay strong! I’d love for you to write back and tell me how it goes.

—Ms. Holbrook

I have a 17-year-old son in 11th grade who is gifted in many ways, including IQ testing in the 99.9th percentile.

Until this year, they’ve had great grades. They started theater their sophomore year. After that, they decided theater is their life. That’s all fine—I am truly happy my child has creative pursuits. This year, they requested to drop all Honors and AP classes to make room for their theatrical pursuits. I said reducing some classes but keeping others would be a good compromise, but that I would expect grades to stay the same or exceed the B average.

They did that, and everything has been OK, until this final junior semester: F, D, C-, C, B-, and B are the current grades. This is a child who can pull A grades even in an accelerated environment like honors and AP. But their priorities are on theater.

My son wants to get into college, and I am very aware this is the semester that colleges will look at. Any suggestions to help my child realize that the current course will curtail their future plans?

—Theater’s Great, but School Matters, Too

Dear TGbSMT,

I would try a little motivation and a little tough love with your theater kid.

For the motivation part, I might try seeking out some meaningful theater-based experiences for your child. I’m envisioning experiences that signal you aren’t indulging them in their adolescent hobby but treating it as a serious and legitimate pursuit. I assume your child is actively participating in either the school drama program or a community theater group, so I would start by reaching out to the director and inquiring about potential connections or options. Are there workshops your child can attend? Do you live anywhere near a college where you might try to arrange for your student to shadow a student performer, or audit a drama class? Can your child be introduced to a director (or someone with a similarly significant role) for an informational interview?

I think taking advantage of resources like this will help in two ways: One, it will indicate to your child that you’re on their team, that you’ve bought into their passion and are confident in their potential. That goes a very long way toward building trust with teenagers, who are extraordinarily perceptive about when they’re being patronized or blown off. Two, it may well present an organic moment for your child to hear feedback about the role their grades will play in future endeavors from someone other than yourself. Seventeen-year-olds often don’t perceive their parents to be credible sources on much of anything, so the more backup on this point, the better.

As for the tough love … from what I can tell, parents of kids this age fall all over the map in terms of their perspectives on how much direct intervention, management, and consequence-issuing is appropriate, and in what style to approach those things. I think you have to make the call about what will be most effective with your kid, based on their personality and your relationship. Maybe you have an honest, vulnerable “I’m worried about your choices” conversation. Maybe you take a more straightforward position: “I set the expectation that the scaled-down course load would be acceptable if you maintained a B average. You did not meet the expectation—back into honors/AP you go!” (That is, if the teachers will still have them.) Maybe your child responds to strictness: “While you’re still home and I’m caring for you, your primary responsibility is school. Until you’re fulfilling your primary responsibility, you don’t get the privilege of theater.” What will work beautifully with one kid will blow up spectacularly with another. Your child does need a reality check, I think, but the particular mode of delivery should be calibrated to knowledge of your own kid.

Hopefully, your attempts will bring your theater kid back around to making a better effort in school, even if only as a means to pursuing their ultimate goal. They might not, though. Some 17-year-olds are happy to listen to and be guided by their parents. Many are not. You may discover that nothing you say or do influences your child’s perspective and choices, and despite your best efforts, they remain hellbent on tanking their transcript. If that turns out to be the case, I’d try to proceed with a light touch. Fulfilling the dream of theater is an exciting goal, but figuring out how to make it happen, on their own terms, is more important. Mistakes and bad choices—even big ones—are part of that learning. Your child will find their way.

—Ms. Bauer

My son is in fourth grade at our neighborhood public school. He has the same teacher his sister had three years ago and she’s wonderful. Both of my kids are good students, never get in trouble, and are well-liked by their teachers. The school has pre-k-5 and includes about a dozen kids with noticeable disabilities. Each of the autistic children is assigned to both a special education classroom and a general classroom and moves back and forth as appropriate, either with or without an aide. I always saw this as a positive thing for everyone involved and was glad to see how much the autistic kids are part of the larger school community.

This year, however, there is a boy in my son’s class who is causing problems. He’s in the general classroom for most of the day with an aide, but he is consistently disruptive. He throws things, he yells, he swears. He has broken at least one Chromebook. In the fall, he threw a chair and hit my son in the back. Partway through the year, the aide got training to physically restrain the child—and the rest of the class now has a cue that they’re to get up and leave quickly and quietly so that the child can be forcibly moved to the special ed classroom. There have been several classroom discussions about how to ignore this child’s outbursts, how not to laugh when he shouts swear words, and how to respond when he’s out of control. At least once a week, my son has a new story to tell about this kid. The teacher seems overwhelmed by the situation, and she is one of the most seasoned and capable teachers I can imagine.

Am I a monster for thinking that this is just too much? My son is very tenderhearted and gets upset when any other kid is in trouble, which is more or less every day at this point. He finds it very difficult to tune it out. At what point does one child’s need for the teacher’s attention harm the other 25 children? There is not much time left in this schoolyear. Would I be within my rights to request that my son and this boy not be in the same class next year? I feel for him and his parents, I really do. But don’t I have to advocate for my own child?

—To Request or Not?

Hey there Request,

Thanks for thinking through this question so thoughtfully. It can be really tough to communicate and advocate for you own child when they’re in a classroom with kids who require a significant amount of attention.

You are definitely not a monster. School safety is something that all teachers and all districts deal with day in and day out. You are well within your rights to request your son and this student not be in the same general education classroom next year. I know these conversations can seem a bit tense or awkward, but you should do what’s in the best interest of your child’s education. I would start by having a brief in-person meeting with the principal to address your concerns and then send a follow-up email to ensure they have a written notification of your request. In the meeting you could say something along the lines of, “I want to be sensitive the needs of all children in our school community, but I am concerned my child’s education will be impacted if he spends a second year in a class with (student). If it all possible I would like the two to be in separate classrooms in fifth grade.”

Speaking from experience, schools can be quite busy toward the end of the year and sending that follow-up email will help remind them of your conversation as they go through the class assignment process. I hope this helps, and good luck to your son as he finishes fourth grade!

—Mr. Hersey