Enlighten Me, Please!

In my 2nd Grader's homework folder I found a note. The note was signed by the principal and talked about the fact that a boy who attends our elementary school lost his mother. It went on to say that the district response team visited the school to meet with the staff and students. They made counselors available for anyone who felt the need. The next paragraph of the note was a the statement which was read by each teacher in each classroom (Kindergarten through Sixth Grade) Below is that statement word for word, except with **** where the child's name was:
"Students I have something very sad to tell you. ***** in fourth grade is in Mrs. ***'s class. He may not be at school for a while. He is staying with his grandparents because his mother died. She died by hanging herself. This kind of death is called suicide. Hearing this could make you feel sad. When people feel sad it helps to be kind to them. This will be a very difficult time for *** when he returns to school."
I asked my 7 yr. old if her teacher had talked to them about a boy in their school whose Mom died. "Yeah, she hung herself," was her response.
I was sort of in shock for a few hours after receiving the note, but as the shock wore off the outrage set in. Why on earth would they have done this? My daughter has no idea who this boy is, why did she and all the Kindergarteners to be told about suicide???? Perhaps the 4th graders could have been told that this little boy's mother died, but did they even need to address the suicide aspect at all? Isn't this unfair to this boy too? Does he really want to come back to school and have everyone know the very private sorrow that happened to him and his family?
Here's the weirdest part. Our principal was advised to have the teachers issue that statement by the district response team. That team supposedly consists of experts in helping children deal with difficult situations. They told a concerned parent that studies show that children do better when we discuss things openly with them. Okay, I agree with that to a degree. When things directly affect a child it is good to take a direct and honest approach. However, doesn't the amount of information vary depending on their age and need to know? I can't conceive of one possible reason my daughter had to be told about a woman hanging herself. I would like to be the one to broach those subjects with her as needed.
So that is my unprofessional and emotional response. Those of you who may have a little more critical distance that I do and especially those of you who have formal training in child psychology or crisis management please enlighten me! Was this really the right way for this situation to be handled?


Blogger Tracy M said...

Unbeleivable. You are right to be outraged. If my kindergartener came home with such information, I would be down at the district offices. Telling the whole school such a personal and painful experience seems barbaric and cruel, not only to the boy, but to the other children as well. A friend of mine lost her husband to suicide when they had a young daughter, and it was dealt with honestly, but privately. I cannot see how an entire school knowing the painful details can help this boy.

10/18/2005 01:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. WOW. I read this blog a lot but have never commented until now. In my former, pre-mom life, I was a teacher. I would have refused to read that statement to my first graders. Being open is generally best, I agree. But only for children who can deal with what "open" will bring. Kids in K-2 are very likely not ready to deal with the specific talk of suicide, hanging oneself, etc. And I have to wonder if the 4th grader who was left behind will really like knowing that all the kids at school know exactly what happened to his mom. It takes a lot of empowerment and privacy away from him, when he has so little to begin with. Do you have plans for talking with the principal and leader of the crisis team? I'd be in there in a heartbeat.

10/18/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous JKS said...

I have a second grader. I think the school's response was completely inappropriate. I think that only the child's class should have been told anything at all, because the other kids don't have any need at all to know this child's personal business.
My school has talked to my 2nd grader about sensitive subjects. Last week, for instance, a boy walking to school was approached by a man in a vehicle and asked if he wanted a ride. The child ran away and the police were called.
The principal sent home a note with details that same day.
In my 2nd grader's class that day, kids were told about the situation and warned that if someone did that it was a dangerous situation and what to do, etc.
I was happy with how they dealt with it because it is something that every kids needs to know, especially if someone is targeting the street their school is on.
They DIDN'T name the student.

10/18/2005 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Susan M said...

I'd be pretty pissed about that. But at the same time, kids will talk. I think they should've sent the notice home to parents and let them decide how much to tell their kids.

That poor 4th grader.

10/18/2005 04:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

I'm with you there - let parents approach these sensitive topics, not the public school system

10/18/2005 04:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Bell said...


On further thought, I've changed my mind on this issue. I'm even more bugged about it than I was last night. Whereas last night I would have just been privately ticked, now I think I'd make some noise at the district. I think you ought to mobilize some moms to all make separate calls of complaint and demand a response from someone besides the 'district response team.'

10/18/2005 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger Heather O. said...

I'm with anon. Wow.

I understand that they maybe wanted to let people know that something bad had happened, but did they have to include details? Please-telling a 5 year old that a woman HANGED herself? Totally gruesome, and way inappropriate.

I think you should follow Ryan's advise and let people know what your response is to the 'district response team.'

10/18/2005 07:26:00 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

That makes me wonder if my whole elemantary school was told of my mother's death... Hmm.

But, yeah. They should have handled that much differently. I agree with you in that they should have only told the 4th-graders the details, and not the whole school. That was ridiculous. You have every right to be pissed off.

10/18/2005 08:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Sara R said...

Actually, the evidence doesn't even necessarily suggest that talking it out is a universal good. It helps some people, but doesn't help others. I read "One Nation Under Therapy" a few months ago. If you want some studies to back up your complaint to the district committee, I'd suggest looking at that book.

I'd be pretty peeved in your situation. I was upset back when I was substitute teacher when a regular teacher, teaching an art lesson about Van Gogh, told the kids that he committed suicide. A lot of the kids even at that older age were shocked and wanted to know why a person would do such a thing. There was no note sent home to the parents about that. Your situation is worse in that there's no historical redeeming value, the kids in the other classes don't even know the boy, and some of the children told are way younger.

Maybe I have already taught my children about suicide--I'm not sure if that has come up. But that is definitely a topic I wouldn't want my child to first come in contact with through the schools. Life and death topics like this need to be discussed in a moral context, and you can't do that freely in public schools. You can't discuss things like that neutrally. And parents need to decide if their child is ready for an idea like that. I can't believe that the school district might not have considered the harm that this information could do to young children. Do none of them have children of their own?

10/18/2005 10:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm outraged for that poor fourth grader and his family. The school district has no right whatsoever so share ANY of his family's personal information. The school should have told other fourth graders that this boy would be out of school for a while because his mom died but should not have been told the reason why. The other students, who have no interaction with this kid at all, shouldn't have been told anything.

I shudder to think what will happen when one day not too long from now one of the fourth grader's bully classmates says something on the playground along the lines of "You're such a disgrace, no wonder your mom killed herself." Kids can, unfortunately, be that cruel.

At the very base though, isn't this country founded on the ideals of an individual's privacy. The school district stepped way out of line on this one. I sincerely hope that you and other parents in your district voice your concern about the way they handled this.

Ug, I'm just disgusted by the whole thing.

10/18/2005 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger fMhLisa said...

Wow, some people have no common sense. But it just seems so weird that you'd get enough of them in the same spot at the same time that something like this would happen. Surely some teacher raised an objection? Surely??? So weird.

10/19/2005 02:12:00 AM  
Blogger Andrea Wright said...

Thank you so much for all the comments. I have yet to talk to one person who thought this was handled appropriately.

I have heard that some teachers including a Kindergarten teacher,(I wish I knew how many) refused to read it to their class.

I also heard that the PTA met with the principal and voiced concern. He told them that the district was adamant about the importance of being open. He told the PTA that he did regret not having informed parents prior to issuing statement.

I am going to make some phone calls today on teh district level. I'll keep you posted.

10/19/2005 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger The Wiz said...

Well, here's one big argument for home schooling. Holy cow, what a situation. Hopefully enough people will yell about it that should a tragedy happen again, this can be avoided. Unfortunately, it's too late for that poor boy and his family.

When you talk to them, it will help to have information that will counter theirs. Just saying "I am mad" won't do much, becuase they have their studies and their studies trump your outrage. (Or at least they will think that way). So get that book sara r suggested, and match research with research. That will probably have more of an impact. Also, the more parents you can get to call, the better.

What a sad, sad story.

10/19/2005 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger annegb said...

Well, Andrea, what's done is done. You can't go back and un-learn your daughter about it.

In your situation, my first priority would be my chid and how she was dealing with this situation. She may experience some fear and real problems down the line. I'd keep an eye on her.

Other than that, yeah, address the issue. Insist that that agency change its policies. They are wrong, children that age are too young to deal with suicide, and maybe need to be dealt with carefully in contemplating the death of a parent, no matter the cause.

I'm not sure how I feel about them identifying the child to his class. It would depend on the circumstances. Perhaps the suicide was publicized in some way.

When my son killed himself, Sarah was in kindergarten. She knew how he died. I talked to her teacher, who had lost an uncle to suicide, and she took good care of Sarah. Many kids at the school knew as well--we had 26 kids just in the five houses on our cul-de-sac, there was no keeping it quiet.

It wasn't an official effort, but everybody just surrounded my kids with love. We put in the obituary that James killed himself and our honesty actually made people more sensitive.

So it's a difficult situation, but I agree, your daughter's school made a mistake.

10/19/2005 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Bek said...

Wow. That is all I can say.

I am also a fan of being open and honest with kids. They figure it out anyway. It is very likely that everyone would have found out what happend to his mother anyway (there is always THAT kid that knows everything and uses the most cruel time to supply said info). That, however, is not the point. It was up to the family to decide how much info to present. I wonder if the principal even SPOKE to the boy and his father about what they planned to do.

There are numerous ways that this could have been handled in an open and honest manner w/ out going into all the details of the death. They could have even addressed the suicide issue and turned it into a learning opportunity and a reason for increased sensitivity toward the boy and others.

They had the "stranger danger" talk w/ the kids the other day at school. This is a good talk to have--really. But, ever since then my kindergartener will not be in a room with out me. Not to brush teeth, not to go to sleep, not to put her shoes in the hall closet or to clear her plate from the table to the kitchen. She is terrified. She thinks a stranger is going to snatch her off the toilet if she is in there alone. I cannot imagine what she would do w/ info on suicide.

10/19/2005 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tigersue said...

Where is the line with being open and honest here. I few years ago my Daughters best friend's father killed himself. The whole school was not told, infact to this day I'm not sure if even her friend and his siblings even know what his father did. My Daughter knows, but she was pulled out of class privately to the principles office because they knew she was friends with this boy, and she was told his father had died to be a support to her friend. She didn't need to be told details just that her friend would need the help and support. That is how to handle this, IMHO. My husband is a counselor and sometimes I wonder if we create reasons to have "grief counselors" in the schools for the kids. Who are they kidding, would the children need counselors if they were just told that so and so's parent died? My goodness I had two friends die when I was in highschool no counselors to help with grief training, and we delt with it. As kids you talk to your peers and you deal with it. Do even other parents need to know details of someones death? I surely don't need to know about it, particularily if I don't know the person. To me that fits in the category of Gossip.

10/19/2005 05:11:00 PM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...

(1) I hate that stranger danger stuff. A better alternative is de Becker's Protecting the Gift, which I think every parent should read.

(2) Here's the thing: would/should the kids respond to this poor boy any differently if his mother had died differently? I don't think so. Hence, what is the point of the information?

10/19/2005 10:23:00 PM  
Blogger Us said...

Yeah, I'm pretty much in agreement with everyone else. It's not acceptable to explain suicide to small children who have no need to know. Telling classmates that a child had a parent die is enough. Send a note home to let parents know in case their kid asks.
What a great idea they had, giving children with active minds something else to worry about every time they leave the house, " Maybe mommy or daddy will do something like that too." Who did they consult to come up with that grand scheme? I think it should definitely be brought up to someone, it was totally inappropriate to involve an entire school in the personal lives of others. Gossip on a grand scale.

10/21/2005 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger Yogi-girl said...

I bet the district has been sued recently.

FYI: The general rule is that the school is more likely to be sued for hiding information than for sharing too much information.

I doubt their decision had anything to do with the well-being of the children.

10/23/2005 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger Adrianne said...

I posted about SAHMs on my blog this morning, it's a spinoff post from OPRAH yesterday and would be interesed in how you all feel. I welcome your comments and opinion.

11/01/2005 05:14:00 PM  
Blogger Emma said...

I don't think it's something to get upset about. As a parent of a second grader myself, I would view this as an opportunity to talk to my child about things that happen in the world - we can't just pretend they don't by protecting children from them.

As a teacher who has seen children grieve the loss of a parent, I've also seen how those children fear reaching out to people and having to explain what happened. In addition, no one has to worry that it's unsubstantiated gossip about how someone died.

I don't think anyone is going to be hurt how the school district handled the case - I'm certain they were following protocol recommended and voted on by various school board members.

11/02/2005 10:06:00 PM  

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