A Boy Is Threatening My Daughter’s Life at School But There’s Nothing I Can Do About It
School authorities know. The Department of Education knows. The police even know. However one year later, this troubled boy still sits in my daughter’s classroom, watching her.
He had a shortlist of girls he fantasized about injuring. Classmates warned high school teachers and counselors about his threats to harm himself and others. He is awkward around people, self-describes as anti-social, and indulges in a violent dark subgenre of heavy metal music known for celebrating corpses and gore.
This is not the Dayton Shooter. This is the boy next door (technically, several blocks away). He is white, resides in a desirable urban neighborhood, the son of upstanding parents in the community, and he has fantasies of bringing a fish knife to high school to slice my daughter's neck open in the science lab.
I know this because he spelled it out clearly in an email to my girl last year. School authorities and the Department of Education know because the threats were immediately brought to their attention. The police know because reports were made.
But threats of bodily harm, even murder, are not enough to ban this troubled teen from school hallways, where my daughter feels the unease of being the object of his "creepy" stares. He is entitled to an education, as every child should be. But it is his disturbing state of mental health and social impairment that ensures he be given priority for classes that suit him, even if it means that my daughter must sit in the same room with him in order to get the courses that she needs for her college requirements and ambitions.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act affords emotionally disturbed students full inclusion "in the least restrictive environment."
Am I wrong to think that the school's priority should be helping him get mental health treatment and protecting my daughter, not making sure a troubled teen has equal access to honors-level chemistry?
It Started Online
The nightmare began last fall. My daughter had been plugging away on homework minus the occasional break for YouTube or texting friends. As a parent, I'm super proud of her dedication and effort—and frankly, how much she's achieved. Through self-determination and late nights, she'll go the extra mile to master the material.
On this particular night, she had been working on an assignment when suddenly she burst into my room. Trembling. In her hand: an email from an aggrieved classmate. He was ruminating about slicing my daughter and then himself.
Any threat should be concerning, but it's commonly understood that threats accompanied by specific plans should set the alarm bells ringing loudly. He knew where he wanted to do it, and what weapon he would do it with.
He also knew that he was disturbed and that he needed help (he said so). When I got my hands on my daughter's device, I saw a trove of emails from months prior in which he had turned to her, frustrated about his uncontrollable thoughts and inability to get girls he wanted to "bang"; in turn, she tried to guide him on how to conduct himself socially.
The night my daughter got the threat, I contacted school directors. They responded swiftly. Phone calls and meetings took place in the days that followed. However, the school ultimately refused to alert law enforcement. They hinted at fears of legal blowback and it was inferred that I should go to the police myself.
You might think going to the police is a no brainer. In truth, I struggled with the decision. I walked to the precinct three times before I committed to filing a report. I knew that this teen couldn't control his thoughts. I didn't love the idea that a record might follow him, maybe diminishing his already-slim prospects for normalcy. But he needed serious help. And my daughter needed protection.
The police were shocked that the school hadn't called them. One officer said he had never seen anything like the emails that I showed him. He was, in fact, afraid for my daughter. In his experience, the cop said, the schools rarely make the perpetrator leave.
Meanwhile, school heads assured me that protective measures would be put in place for my daughter's safety. But they wouldn't tell me what those measures would be, or confirm that action had been taken—nor would teachers be made aware of the threat on my daughter's life: the young man's privacy would be protected per federal HIPAA law, designed to protect mental health information for those living with mental illness.
The fact that he had made these threats was itself, apparently, a piece of confidential information.
As for getting the help he needed, one year later, it remains a mystery as to whether he received an appropriate psychological evaluation and actionable care.
My daughter tries to brush it off. She doesn't like to talk about it. She'll say, "It's okay." I tell her, "It's not okay. You might be fine but it's never okay for someone to do this to you, or for authorities to tolerate it."
It's Not Over
At the time of this writing, it is a weekend morning. Kids are getting in last hurrahs before the start of the new school season. My daughter is excited about her class offerings and the prospect of seeing familiar friends.
She notices that the young man who threatened her last year is observing her on social media. She blocks him. He immediately creates a new account so that he can see her. She knows this because this particular platform indicates who is looking at certain posts. Within 5 minutes, he observes her from 3 different accounts, using monikers he creates, names that reflect his antisocial tendencies and penchant for death masks.
He's still watching her.
Experts Weigh In
Our children have the right to be safe, says Karen Siris, Ed.D., co-founder and president of School Leaders for Change. "Every child has a right to feel comfortable in their learning environment...The victimized individual should never be the one whose situation should be compromised because of an aggressor." All states have anti-bullying laws, she says. For instance, in New York State, where Siris is based, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) is designed to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for student discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. If your child is threatened in any way, you should go straight to the school, says Siris. Be prepared to work your way up the chain if necessary—from principal to superintendent to the state department of education.
Robert Harnick, an attorney with Harnick & Harnick in New York City, has represented students who have been bullied and threatened. The first thing he tells parents to do: "Send a certified letter to the school." It sends a strong message that they are on notice, and if anything happens, the school will be responsible. "That will make them think a lot harder about how it is that they're going to keep that child away from your child," says Harnick. If you have a conversation with the school in person or by phone, follow it up with an email or letter summarizing the discussion and what the school agreed to do to safeguard your child and the school population. In some cases, an order of protection might be warranted, he says.
Both Siris and Harnick indicate that the schools will not necessarily call the police, but a parent is free to do so. The bottom line: "Parents should be relentless in approaching the school, going back, and demanding action for that child's safety," Siris says. "Be relentless."
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the contributor.