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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My son is a Black tween who recently entered middle school. The school has a little over half minority enrollment, but only 11 percent of that is made up of Black students, and the neighborhood where the school is located is historically white.
Just a few days into starting at his new school, another student said something extremely racist to him. We immediately called the administration, and they spoke to my son and the other student, who copped to what he said and apologized. They also called the student’s parents but there were no further consequences. My son felt comfortable with how the situation was handled but the very next day, a different student called him the n-word.
Our son reported what had happened to a nearby teacher whom he didn’t know, but he said the teacher pulled the offender aside and spoke to him for a few minutes and there was no further action. When we called the administration, this time even more outraged and concerned, we found out this teacher never even reported the incident.
The administration told us they would speak with our son about the incident that day. They didn’t. When two days went by without anyone asking him about what happened, we insisted on a meeting to find out how they were intending to handle this incident. They pawned us off on the guidance counselor until we demanded to speak to a dean.
The dean was extremely dismissive of our concerns—she refused to even sit down with us at the table and instead shoved a printed-out copy of the disciplinary code at us. When we pushed for answers about why it hadn’t been investigated, and how it was going to be handled, she told us she had a class and didn’t have time to speak with us, while repeatedly checking her phone. We’ve been very squeaky wheels and I’m sure they’re tired of dealing with us and getting angry calls, but it has felt like she isn’t even pretending to care about what should be a serious issue to everyone.
They did finally begin the disciplinary process that afternoon, but I’m very unsettled that they seemed to ignore what happened for several days. I’d like to take the issue higher but I’m not sure what my options are. Should I file a complaint with the DOE or some other official office? Retain a lawyer? Even try to take it to the media (or threaten to)?
They insist that they have to follow the discipline code and cannot provide a more serious consequence than a call home on a first offense, but I feel that if there are no real consequences for discrimination and harassment then it will continue to happen, and my son will suffer. I feel they just want to make the immediate problem (us) go away, but they don’t really want to do anything to protect my son. He went from excited about starting middle school to telling me he “hates his life” in the span of 6 days. I am getting him into therapy over this.
I want them to take meaningful action to prevent it from happening again, or I’m considering transferring him. He’s dealt with this kind of things in all kinds of spaces so I know there’s no magical place where racism doesn’t exist, but I am wrestling with whether to attempt to transfer him to a majority Black school, or whether there might be a school where the administration takes these issues more seriously, or if they all follow the same code as a system of public schools. He likes the school and the new friends he’s made overall, and I fear transferring and adjusting to another new school, and trying to play catch-up and meet people a month behind everyone else could be very difficult. What do you think?
I am overwhelmed and feel like I’m beating my fists against the brick wall of systemic racism, while the brick wall acts like I’m being crazy or obnoxious. What are my options here for forcing them into accountability? And what’s the best way to advocate for and protect my son, who deserves to attend school in peace and safety?”
—Why Won’t Anyone Listen?
This is awful. I’m so sorry this is happening to your son and for the way the school administration has treated you. You are not crazy or obnoxious. You are absolutely correct that your son deserves to feel safe and welcome at school.
There is a movement away from “zero-tolerance” discipline policies in education, which includes a shift from traditional punishments to “restorative practices” in many schools. But educators should differentiate between run-of-the-mill rude or mean behavior and hate speech. Many school districts include language about equity and inclusivity in their mission statements and often have anti-harassment or anti-bullying policies indicating their commitment to fostering respect for all students. If your district has such documents, they may be available online. They need to be reminded that equity requires more than a mission statement: administrators must practice what they preach. The school does owe you an explanation for how they plan to ensure that your son is respected and protected against racist abuse.
I am glad that, in both cases, an adult at the school addressed the racist behavior immediately. However, I am alarmed that, in the second instance, the administration did not follow up with your son when requested and dismissed your concerns. If you haven’t already, I recommend you document everything that has happened up until now and email it to the involved parties at the school, including the principal. Continue to document any new communications you have with the school. The reason that documentation is important is because if the offending students do not learn from the experience, if they continue to target your son or other Black students, the documentation will indicate that this problem is in fact bullying or harassment.
Although the offenses were committed by two different students, they happened in such a short span of time. The administration and faculty must take the issue seriously and consider what they need to do to foster a school climate that is inclusive and welcoming to Black students. One organization that I highly respect is Learning for Justice. Their website has free resources and professional development, including resources for responding to hate and bias as well as bullying. Learning for Justice argues that the best path forward is prevention. What happened to your son should be a warning sign to address racist speech now.
But how do you get them to listen to you? Given your most recent experience, it may be difficult. You will be more effective if you can band together with other parents (and hopefully faculty) who agree with you, or search out a local racial justice organization that will support you in your efforts. There’s power in numbers. If retaining a lawyer is within your means, it’s not a bad idea—schools tend to sit up and pay attention when the threat of litigation looms. Negative press would also get their attention, but I would first consider the impact of such attention on your son; as a middle school student, he may not want to be the center of a viral news story or deal with backlash that will come as a result.
Of course, there is no quick fix, and this sort of work can be frustrating and exhausting. I don’t blame you for considering a transfer to a different school. What does your son want to do? The comments about him “hating his life” make me wonder if a new environment is in order, but you also say that he likes the school and his friends despite these two incidents. His mental health and well-being should be your guide, and as a middle schooler he is old enough to be part of the decision-making process.
I want to reiterate that you are right—the school should be treating your family with care and respect. They do have an obligation to your son and all the Black students in the school. I hope the school sees the writing on the wall and addresses the problem now so that it does not become a crisis later.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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I need help with my 10-year-old fourth grader. She’s always been either at or ahead of grade level in all her subjects. She understands her homework material, but rages against it. She’ll complain and cry the entire time. Occasionally she’ll ask what a word problem means if the text is confusing, but mostly she solves the problems on her own. I do not understand the tears. She should be finished much faster but the crying and moaning just drags out the misery.
I offer breaks but she won’t take them. I’ve tried doing the homework with her directly after school/after a snack/before dinner/after dinner. Luckily, I work from home and can sit next to her the whole time.
I am incredibly calm and patient with her with plenty of hugs. It’s not like I’m harsh with her or belittle her for it. I try and validate her feelings. What is going on with this child? Why is this so emotionally hard when the material is not intellectually hard? She’s always been a perfectionist and hard on herself for making a mistake. We’ve worked on this a lot since kindergarten. My suspicion is that perfectionism is the root of the issue.
My other question is whether I should be enacting some sort of sticker chart for completing homework without crying about it? That feels like I’m sending the wrong message about stuffing feelings down. I’m at a loss. I will talk to her teacher and let her know what’s going on, but I’d love your advice too.
—Baffled Homework Helper
You really need to speak to the teacher. The key to solving this problem is determining the cause. Otherwise you’re simply throwing darts in the dark. I think this starts with a conversation between you, the teacher, and eventually your daughter.
If the struggle is perfectionism, the teacher can help by establishing clear expectations, which should ideally value effort over results. If it’s clear to your daughter that a homework assignment filled with both effort and mistakes is perfect, that might help.
If the struggle is a simple lack of desire to work beyond the school day, the solution may be to allow your daughter to fail at home by not completing her homework and endure the consequences that the teacher imposes during the school day. As I often tell parents, “I assigned the homework, so fear not. I’ll also assign the consequences when it’s not done.”
Your daughter may also be struggling with something at school that you or even the teacher are not aware, and while she can hold things together during the school day, she’s less equipped at home when the demands of school rear their ugly head. This is why a conversation with the teacher is your first step. Putting your heads together to identify the root cause of the problem will be the first step to determining a solution.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
My six-year-old son is really struggling in first grade. He’s highly intelligent (99 percentile on a recent cognitive/IQ assessment) and is probably some type of neurodivergent, demonstrating sensory processing challenges, some traits of autism, and nonexistent emotional regulation. We’re in the process of getting him fully evaluated, and he already has an IEP for speech. I’ve tried to access all the resources available in our community and state (Alaska), and we are met with long, long waitlists.
He can’t independently regulate emotions and frequently lashes out physically and verbally. He’s super bright and really good at conversing with adults, and is highly, highly skilled in language—that is his super power, so he can often talk around emotional regulation.
I’m a teacher at his school. I’m good friends with his teacher and have great professional relationships with our administrators, but navigating these challenges professionally while advocating for my kid is hard, murky, and confusing. So far, I haven’t made any waves and have gone with the flow, but I feel like I’m doing my son a grave disservice.
Because he’s been deemed unsafe (four physical assaults in the first five weeks of school), and there is no “diagnosis” to explain his challenges, we are on the zero-tolerance pipeline. If my kid uses unsafe words or his body, he’s automatically suspended for three days. We are currently servicing our second back-to-back three-day suspension; he only made it a half day back before being suspended again.
We are in a period of watchful waiting, which could take up to two more months. And I’ve been told by my admin that my son’s safety plan will not change until he receives a formal diagnosis. It’s gotten to the point that he’s beginning to internalize that he’s a bad kid.
So here’s my question—if we are month(s?) out from receiving services, can I keep him in school under these conditions? He’s hurting his friends, and the school is focused on safety (get it). Our school has been very supportive of me, as mom. And they’re giving my kid chances and a (sort of) clean slate every time he returns. But the school is only reactive and won’t help him handle his struggles. I understand that special education wheels can turn slowly, but can I really say I’m being a good mom if I keep bringing him back, only to result in another kid getting hit and my kid getting sent home? Can I keep working here?
What do I do to advocate for my kid? What do I do to protect my job, or at least not break contract? I’m at an absolute loss. My gut instinct says homeschool until we get a diagnosis, but my son’s challenges are social. Will I being doing him a huge disservice by taking him out of school? Or am I doing him a disservice by keeping him in? What do I do?
—At a Complete Loss
It’s extremely challenging to be a teacher at a school where your child is having issues. That part stinks, and I completely understand your stress here. I get not wanting to make waves, but I think ultimately, in special ed, we do appreciate parents who are strong advocates for their children. You already have a relationship with the school and with his teacher, so lean on that a bit to figure out the best approach for the challenging conversations you need to have. You can also probably talk to your administration directly about the stress you’re feeling and the concern you have about him staying in school until he has an IEP.
Homeschooling seems like a lose-lose: you don’t get to stay in your class with your students, and he doesn’t get the opportunity to learn the emotional reg skills he needs. Not to mention, you may open a cycle of more behaviors when he returns. I think you are better off trying to work towards staying in school in the interim.
It surprises me a little that they won’t attempt a different behavior plan until his evaluation is done. Most schools I have worked at continue to tweak behavior plans while they wait because safety is the priority. With that in mind, I would ask if you can try a different behavior plan. It sounds like you probably need a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) in order to determine why he’s having these behaviors, since there are many neurodivergent kids with a wide range of diagnoses who aren’t lashing out physically. You don’t need an IEP to have an FBA, and knowing the function of the behavior informs what approach you can take to teaching a replacement behavior. If verbal reasoning is a strength, when you have identified what the triggers are, you can talk to him about how to approach it differently and even roleplay to practice his replacement behaviors when he is in a calm mental state.
At minimum, I would start by asking if he can have a non-contingent break schedule—times of day where he can take 5 minutes to play with playdough or watch a video, regardless of how his behavior has been prior, as long as he is in the classroom at break-time. Non-contingent breaks offer more enjoyable escape from school work at lower effort than running away or hurting someone. Additionally, it can help him build stamina (his non-contingent breaks could start every 30 minutes, then every 40, etc.) Break cards can also serve a similar purpose. In either case, I think the first step is getting him through a school day without hurting himself or anyone else. He will catch up on missed academics, but he does need to learn to be in the classroom for a day.
Before the IEP evaluation is finished, you can also request that he work with the school counselor or psychologist or whoever does behavior support for non-IEP kids, to help him talk through scenarios and practice emotional regulation. Does your school have a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum? If so, use the language of that curriculum to work on identifying strategies to regulate.
One last set of strategies you can look into is some sensory regulation. Sensory dysregulation is very unpleasant, and can make a child—especially one who doesn’t have other coping mechanisms—lash out. The non-contingent breaks may be helpful here, but another option is to give him a “job” that works his muscles to provide deeper sensory input—a.k.a. heavy work. He can help shelve books or carry reams of paper to classrooms. Having the heavy work may help regulate his sensory system, which in turn may help regulate his emotional state.
What it comes down to, I guess, is that your child needs a behavior plan that allows him to stay safe in school. It isn’t a bad thing to “make waves” if it gets your child what you need. Rather than viewing your professional relationship with the school as a source of discomfort, try to lean on the relationships you’ve built with the administration to advocate for tools that will help your child learn and his teacher teach while you wait for the results of the evaluation. There’s no reason to delay teaching him emotional regulation tools until the evaluation is finished when it’s clear that he will need those tools one way or another.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)