#childsafety | How to handle misogyny and sexual harassment at school.

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.

It has recently come to light that there have been major problems with misogyny and sexual harassment in my child’s seventh grade classroom. Because I was one of the parents who spoke up about it, it has somehow fallen to me to offer a list of resources and media that the school can use to help educate and provoke change. Do you have any recommendations for books, movies, podcasts, or anything else for ages 12-14, and the adults that work with them?

For the record, I do not think I should be the one doing the work to solve the issues with the overall culture of the school, but at this point I am willing to do it if it will help things along. The principal and superintendent are already involved, and I have met with them. They seem to think it is an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. It’s been ongoing all year and escalating. They also seem to think that one day of talking in their office will fix it—it won’t.

—Not a One-Time Thing

Dear One-Time Thing,

You are right. You should not be the one doing the work to solve issues with the culture of the school. That responsibility falls squarely on the administrators, counselors, and faculty. Of course, parents can be invaluable to building and maintaining positive school culture, but in my opinion, asking you to curate educational resources is completely inappropriate, and I hope you tell them so.

And yet, I’m still going to point you in the direction of some helpful resources.

If you’re looking for texts to read with students, A Mighty Girl is one of my favorite resources for high quality children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature. They offer books that deal with sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

If you’re looking for resources for educators, the Anti-Defamation League has an abundance on their website. Their program, No Place for Hate, can be effective in helping schools create inclusive, equitable environments for all students.

You might also see what resources are available in your community. For example, here in Austin, the SAFE Alliance serves “survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and exploitation, and domestic violence.” They also offer community outreach and educational programming for middle and high schoolers through their program Expect Respect. I have hosted them in my own classroom and they are phenomenal. Perhaps there is something similar in your area?

The administration should not drag its feet on this. All students are entitled to a school environment free of sexual harassment in accordance with Title IX and they open themselves up to litigation if they do not take appropriate action to address this head on.

Thank you, letter writer, for doing what’s right. I hope you demand the same of the school leadership.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I try my best to view my 24-month-old son as his own unique individual self. This hasn’t always been easy, as I’m an anxious person by nature. I worried excessively when he took longer than average to reach some milestones.

Now, I have the opposite “problem.” My son discovered letters and numbers and has undergone a language revolution. Besides all the talking, he can identify all the letters (upper and lowercase), can count and identify numbers up to 20, and can even read about 5 words. I’m so proud and happy to feel like I can sit back and worry about him a little less.

My mother seems to be having the opposite reaction. She visited with us last weekend (outside and masked) and started peppering me with questions about what our plans were for school. Did our public school system have enough programs for gifted children? Had we considered enrolling him in private school early? I mostly assured her that I had faith in our local public school system and that he loves the daycare he’s in.

My mother and I have always had our issues and some of them involve feeling like her love for me was conditional on my being smart, accomplished, etc. I don’t know that my son’s current abilities mean anything about whether he would be considered gifted years from now (after all, he’s also been behind), nor am I sure that it matters. From where I’m sitting, it was nice to be thought of as “smart” growing up, but I think I would have been happier if people, especially my mother, had put more emphasis on things like cultivating enjoyable hobbies and being kind to others.

I’m torn between being angry at my mother for starting this pattern all over again with my son and worrying that maybe she’s right that he’ll need more. And, I know it’s too early to really worry about this, but do I have an obligation to find programs for him that will help him fulfill his academic potential instead of just defaulting to sending him to the elementary school down the street?

—Meddling Mother

Dear Meddling,

First, let’s take a deep breath because there is a lot to unpack here. I’ll begin by saying: Your son is going to be just fine. The fact that he knows any letter at age 2 and can read a few words is fantastic and should be celebrated and encouraged! But I do think your instincts are correct—in my opinion it is way too early to be concerned with what programs he’s going to need when he turns five. At this age, it’s too difficult to tell if your son is “gifted.” Right now, your focus as a parent should be to get to know your son for who he is and enjoy these precious moments without the pressure of finding a private school for him.

I think your bigger stress point is your mother. Based on your letter, it seems like you two have a challenging relationship when it comes to academic achievement. It’s clear that even in your adult life, her approach to education left a lasting impression on you. It’s also clear that you do not want this type of relationship with your son. What I would suggest is to have a very honest conversation with your mother about how you want to approach your son’s education. Tell her gently but firmly that her pressure is unwelcome. Setting boundaries early regarding your approach to your son’s education will pay dividends in the long term.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

About a month ago, my child’s elementary school moved from fully online to part-time in-person school. For recess, the school has broken children up into various rotations, in an effort to keep kids spaced apart. Small groups of kids rotate through different areas of the playground (blacktop, field), as well as a guided activity like yoga or mindfulness. All of my child’s friends are in a different rotation than she is. I fully recognize the complexity of scheduling, not to mention the herculean effort it’s taken to get in-person school underway after so long. But my child is miserable during recess, and recess is incredibly long—it lasts 90 minutes. It’s definitely affecting her day, and I feel like she’d be so much happier if she could just switch into another group. Is this worth approaching the teacher about? I don’t want to add to the teacher’s burdens, but I also want my child’s hybrid school experience to be as positive as possible.

—Butt In or Out?

—Dear Butt,

Apart from recess, I hope your daughter’s return to in-person school has been smooth. I wish I had better news, but I don’t think there’s a really good answer regarding her recess assignment. I get that your kid is miserable without her friends, but knowing first-hand how difficult it has been for many districts to pivot in and out of remote learning over the past year, seemingly small accommodations like this have the potential to undo the safety measures countless people have worked tirelessly to develop.

If I were in your position, I would talk with my kiddo about how this is an opportunity to make new friends and try new things. Having spent so much time away from other children, many kids are pretty rusty when it comes to social settings and making friends. However, I think this is the perfect time for kids to expand their friendships and interests. I’d say something like, “I know there aren’t many of your friends in your recess assignment and that makes it pretty hard to have fun. But I think this could be a chance to make some great new friends! Are there any kids in your group you think you’d like to play with?” I’d also be sure to try and schedule some time with her friends for play outside of school depending on your community’s COVID regulations. That would provide some opportunity for her to see her friends and may warm her up to the idea of making new friends during recess.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My second grader went back to in-person school for the first time this year after spring break. The room is big and the class is small, so she’s going to school every day.

During recess, a group of kids plays tag with pool noodles. It’s very elaborate with lots of pretending, and I’m told it is super fun, but my daughter reports that “mostly, at the end we just all try to get [a new kid].” I immediately asked how said child feels about that.

She doesn’t know if he likes to be chased or not. She agrees she should ask him, but the kids don’t have many opportunities to socialize freely. And she’s not a leader in the group—she’s new to their established game, has been on the bottom socially before and is hesitant to rock the boat. In fact, she has a history of this group chasing her when she did not want to be chased, and she did not have much success when she asked teachers to intervene.

Every day, she tells me how much fun tag is and what they all pretended. Every day I ask if they all chased the same kid. It didn’t start that way, but yes, they did. Has she asked him if he likes it? No.

I don’t have contact information for his parents. We aren’t really allowed to linger at drop off or pick up, so I haven’t crossed paths with this kid to even introduce myself to his adult and ask how they like the school.

I suppose it’s possible this game is the highlight of his day, but it also might not be. The classroom teachers supervise recess. Should I bring it up to them? Or is this none of my business? My husband says that beyond telling our own child we don’t approve unless he tells her it’s fun for him, it’s none of our business.

—Don’t Want to be a Busybody, Don’t Want to Raise a Bully

Dear Don’t Want to be a Busybody,

I think there is a happy middle ground between being a busybody and ignoring the situation completely. As a teacher, I often rely on the eyes and ears of others to alert me to situations that I have not witnessed or fully understood. It kills me to find out that a child has been picked on for a month before I finally took notice, so I always ask my students to assist by being my eyes and ears.

I coach them to say things to me like, “You might just want to check in on Katie. She might be having a hard time at lunch.”

Or, “I’m not sure how Billy is feeling about kickball today. He looked a little sad. Maybe just ask him if everything is OK.”

Often, it’s nothing. Katie hates tuna fish, thus the sour face at lunch. Billy failed to catch a pop fly and let the winning run score and is disappointed with himself.

But sometimes they alert me to a real situation, and in those cases, I’m so happy to know about them sooner than later.

So perhaps you could just send an email to the teacher saying something like, “This might be nothing, but my daughter isn’t sure if Johnny is enjoying tag at recess. She’s worried that he might feel targeted or picked on. Again, it very well may be nothing, but I want to mention it just in case.”

This will probably raise the teacher’s awareness enough to make a determination if there is a problem at recess, and it also teaches your daughter that there are ways of taking care of the people around her without jumping to conclusions, making accusations, or putting herself in a tricky spot.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My husband and I have two teenagers, aged 14 and 15, who are well-adjusted and doing well in high school, both socially and academically. About three years ago their father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. From the beginning we have been honest with them about his diagnosis and its development, but even though we knew the prognosis was three to five years, we never told them that because we didn’t want to scare them. We have reached a point where treatment options are limited, and it is very likely that this will be his last Christmas with us. Do we tell them that?

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