Care and Feeding

Did Our School Overreact to My Child’s Thoughtless Remark?

A gun and a police officer in front of a school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Erik Mclean/Unsplash, Zachary Keimig /Unsplash, and goir/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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My 6-year-old son’s teacher told him that another student looked at him like “she wanted to rip your face off.” My son was upset that his teacher said this, and his response to his teacher was that he would shoot her. The school then called me to pick him up, made a police report, and called child services.

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I’m upset about what the teacher said to my son. Wasn’t she wrong to say this? I’m also upset about how the school handled it. He is only 6 and has a vivid imagination. What are your thoughts on this incident?

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—Too Far?

Dear Too Far,

Tone is very hard to discern in circumstances like this. It’s hard to know if the teacher was joking—and I suspect that she was—but it’s admittedly not the best choice of words, particular with 6-year-old kids who can’t read sarcasm as well as older children.

That said, I wouldn’t be too upset with the teacher. Her intent, I suspect, was to amuse. It clearly wasn’t received that way, but as teachers, we make hundreds of decisions every day and say hundreds, if not thousands, of things to students every day. Not everything we say will be perfect. If the teacher’s intent wasn’t malicious, you can lament her choice of words, but I’m not sure if I’d be too angry.

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As for the school’s handling of the situation, I also don’t think it’s ideal, but administrators are also likely caught between a rock and a hard place. If other students heard your son’s comment, that means children may go home and tell their parents that a classmate threatened to shoot someone at school. Administrators can’t simply ignore the comment. I do, however, think there is a more appropriate middle ground between doing nothing and making a police report.

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That middle ground, however, can be tricky. It’s exceptionally unlikely that a 6-year-old child would have access to a firearm, but sadly, incidents involving young children and improperly stored firearms do happen. It’s even less likely that any 6-year-old child would or could bring a gun to school, but given recent events, I suspect the administrator’s instinct was to not take any chances. This is not an entirely unreasonable instinct.

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In this particular circumstance, I think that the teacher, your son, and administration are all victims of the unfortunate climate in which we are currently living. Absent the prevalence of school shootings, your son’s comment likely wouldn’t have risen to the level of an administrator, but parents are frightened. Teachers are frightened. Students are frightened. Administrators are worried that the lack of a response could lead to unexpected tragedy down the road.

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In this case, administrators were almost certainly thinking, “Better safe than sorry.”

I think I’d do my best to be a partner with the school in terms of making sure that your son’s feelings and privacy are protected and that he learns a valuable lesson without being traumatized by this incident.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My daughter just finished kindergarten. The school has a reputation for being excellent, as does her teacher. My daughter excelled at academic work, she didn’t have any behavior problems, and she has friends at school.

The problem is that she hates school. She attended a play-based preschool and has been in school or daycare since she was three months old, and this is the first time she has resisted any of it. She consistently said that kindergarten was very boring. She’s one of the oldest in her class, but the structure of the school day seemed ill-suited for 5- and 6-year-olds (only 20 minutes of recess; lunch at 10:30 a.m.; expectation of sitting quietly most of the rest of the day; lots of worksheets). I thought that it was a transition problem from play-based to academic schooling, but it persisted the whole year. Her preschool friends all seemed well settled in their new schools. Yet my child found new ailments daily in hopes of convincing us that she couldn’t go to school anymore.

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I do not want her to hate school for the next 12 years of her life. Kindergarten should be fun, and it’s unlikely to get better in later grades if this is what kindergarten is like in her school. I believe in public school and don’t relish taking her out. Are there things we can advocate for without causing her teachers too much extra work?

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—Long Road Ahead

Dear Long Road,

The transition from play-based preschool to a more traditional kindergarten classroom can be challenging for students who thrived in their early learning environment. All children learn differently, and it seems like your daughter responded well to her preschool’s approach to instruction. That said, you should consider a few things before acting.

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Based on what you shared, it sounds like her age could be a factor. Given that she’s a bit older than her peers and is excelling academically, it’s not surprising that kindergarten feels boring to her. The fact that she’s spent most of her life in an active learning environment has likely over prepared her for kindergarten as compared to her friends. As she matriculates through higher grades and the content becomes more rigorous, she may naturally find school more challenging and enjoyable.

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I’d also ask her what the main problem with kindergarten was that made it a drag for her. Was it the schedule, the content, or the lack of opportunity to get up and move? Knowing this will give you a starting place to advocate for your daughter with her next teacher and provide some supports for her outside of school as well. For example, if her main issue is boredom due to the content, you could explore enrichment opportunities outside of school. If she really felt bored by lack of movement during the school day, you might consider signing her up for Little League or another sports team, or any activity before or after school that might provide her with some more physical exertion.

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If none of that seems to work during the next year and you have the resources to do so, I would consider finding a project-based learning environment for your daughter. You are right to prioritize your daughter’s love for learning above all else. Even if the public school comes with great reviews, it may not be a great fit for your daughter.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

Ever since Uvalde, I think about school shootings all the time. I’m anxious to the point that I don’t want my kids going back to school in the fall, even though pulling them out isn’t actually an option. My kids go to a public elementary school with about 500 kids. The school district here has a lot of problems and is hemorrhaging teachers and staff, and the superintendent position keeps turning over. I’m afraid these issues will make it hard for the schools in our city to do what they need to do to ensure safety. Another parent had the idea that the parents should form our own security team to watch over the school in shifts. It sounds far-fetched, but maybe that’s where we are at this point. We have no sense of trust that the school is adequately prepared. What can I and other parents do to get ok with sending our kids to school again? Are there things we can bring up to the principal to ensure the school is as safe as possible? I sound like I’m in the middle of a panic attack, but all the parents I know feel the same way. We need ideas that don’t have anything to do with politics, because there isn’t time to clean up that mess before August. Your insights would be appreciated.

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—Dreading Back-to-School

Dear Dreading Back-to-School,

First, I understand your concerns. In addition to my own teaching job, I have two children in middle school, and my wife teaches kindergarten. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I teach 20 minutes down the road from where the Sandy Hook shooting took place.

It’s frightening for all of us. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t run an active shooter scenario through my mind and analyze the best response.

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The first thing to remember is that despite the frequency of school shootings, the vast and overwhelming majority of children will never experience this type of violence. This is what I remind my own students of when they express fear, and frankly, it’s what I say to myself. For every child or teacher harmed or killed by a bullet, tens of millions of students and teachers will never be directly impacted by violence of this kind.

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My suggestion is to ask the principal what you can do to help. They will know—better than most —what can be done to make the school a better, safer place for students.

If your school is losing teachers and staff, you can also make the teachers and staff who remain feel as supported and appreciated as possible. You may not be able to immediately impact gun laws, but you can certainly make a teacher feel like they are loved and admired, and that will go a long, long way in making teachers want to remain in the profession. While I am sure that some teachers are leaving because of fear for their safety, many more leave teaching because of the combative nature of the teaching environment today. Aggressive, litigious parents. Demanding administrators. A lack of understanding for the realities of teaching today. You can do a lot simply by counteracting these forces with kindness and appreciation. The better the teachers in your child’s school, the safer your child will be.

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You can also become publicly and politically active through organizations like Sandy Hook Promise, which trains students and adults to know the signs of gun violence before it happens, or Everytown, a movement of more than 8 million moms, mayors, survivors, students, and everyday Americans working to end gun violence. Neither of these are instantaneous solutions, but organizations like this are looking to produce profound and lasting change. Sometimes doing something meaningful, even if its impact is not immediately realized, can help us deal with the stress and anxiety during trying times like these.

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Lastly, if you can, try to insulate your child from as much of this anxiety as possible. As teachers, we always present a strong, positive, stoic front, regardless of the situation, because kids have a right to feel safe in their school. There will be a time for them to worry like we do, but hopefully, that time will happen much closer to adulthood when they are better equipped to deal with these feelings in a more thoughtful, pragmatic way.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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