I got a call today from the assistant principal at my son’s school. In a very serious-sounding and sincere message, she informed me that a child in my son’s school called my son a “terrorist” during a dispute in the cafeteria. I was assured that the other child was receiving appropriate consequences, and that my son’s teacher has been alerted to “keep an eye” on my son.
I appreciated the phone call. I always appreciate hearing about what is going on with my children at school.
But part of me wonders if we’ve taken student discipline too far.
I’m always on edge whenever I receive a phone call from my son’s school. Last year, he was suspended for bringing a small pocket knife to school. At first, he said he brought the knife to school for his “Metals Club.” Later, he admitted he just thought it was cool and wanted to show it to his friends. He never threatened anyone with it, and he got very upset when the kids he showed it to began acting afraid of it.
Despite his age and lack of intent to do harm, the NYC Department of Education’s zero tolerance policy meant an automatic suspension from school. He’s an excellent student, and probably the least violent kid you would ever meet. But thanks to zero tolerance, he received the same punishment as a child who brought a knife to school with the intent to harm another student.
The NYC DOE’s disciplinary code contains a variety of suggested and mandatory disciplinary actions for a range of student offenses, including “using profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures.”
It is certainly useful to have citywide standards, rather than leaving everything solely to an individual school’s principal to decide.
But as I remember it, using “profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures” is a rite of passage of fourth grade.
I’m not excusing the kid who called my son a terrorist. For the record, we are African-American, but we are not Muslim. I do not know the race or ethnicity of the other child, but there is nothing about this incident that makes me believe the other child used the word “terrorist” as a racial or ethnic slur. I am certain the kid has no idea what that word really means, except that’s he’s heard it enough to know it’s bad, and used it to indicate that my son is a bad person.
Is that profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive? I don’t know.
When my son got home, I asked him what happened in school today. He talked about his social studies project, but didn’t mention the terrorist incident until I asked him what else happened.
“___________ called me a terrorist,” he said.
“And how did you feel about that?”
“It upset me a lot.”
“Because I’m no terrorist!”
“And what is a terrorist?”
“They’re bad people who blow things up.”
A bad person who blows things up. Not a nice word to call someone, sure. Grounds for any disciplinary action beyond, “Don’t do that again”? I’m not sure.
I used the moment as an opportunity to talk to my son about name-calling in general, even in jest, and to make sure he doesn’t retaliate – whether it’s against this kid, or some other kid – by calling someone a terrorist. I hope the other kid gets a similar lecture from his parents.
And then I hope both my son and theirs return to the business of being profane, obscene, vulgar and lewd, as is the wont of 4th grade boys.
What do you think? Am I under-reacting to this? Should I take this more seriously? Is the school overreacting? How would you feel if someone called your child a terrorist? Would you want the school to let you know?