When A Third-Grader Threatens To Shoot His Friends, What Do You Do?

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In Lifehacker’s first-ever Parental Advisory advice column, I’m diving right in to a topic that kids and parents should never have to deal with — and yet, here we are. What do you do when one third-grader tells a bunch of other third-graders (including your own child) that he’s going to get his dad’s gun and “kill everyone”?

Here’s the letter that came in from Parenting is straight-up hard:

Meghan,

Last week, I was checking my son’s backpack (he’s in 3rd grade) and found an envelope with a handwritten note inside. It was clearly from a child. This is what it said:

“Dear W,

I said something very violent I shouldn’t have said. It was because it probably scared you so I am giving you this to know that you are a very very caring person and you have a good brain, to know you are very smart and a caring and loving person.

Sincerely, K”

I asked W what K said that was “violent” that would make him write this note. Apparently at the lunch table the day before the kid had said to the kids at the table that he was going “to get his dad’s gun and kill everyone.” W said after lunch, he reported it to the teacher in private because it scared him.

I hadn’t gotten a call or note from the teacher or anyone at the school. I messaged the teacher asking and she provided very little comfort or details on the situation. All she said was, “We take these very seriously.”

Do I push it with the teacher? Do I escalate to the principal? Do I push for specifics on how the district/school handles “these types” of issues? Do I just ignore it, assuming it was just a stupid thing a young kid said? How/what do I teach my son about that? In the world today, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for an event like that to actually happen.

Sincerely,

Parenting is straight-up hard

Dear Parenting is straight-up hard,

It really is, isn’t it? My heart aches at the fact that a third-grader can conjure up such a threat and that another third-grader has to feel that kind of fear. My own son is in third grade, so I’m truly feeling for you as you navigate this.

If I were in your shoes, I 100 per cent would have expected to hear about this incident first from the teacher, rather than a full day later from the note that K wrote to your son. I’ve gotten messages from my son’s teacher on way less important topics and I’ve always appreciated it. We can’t help our kids through things if we don’t know those things are happening, and this is a biggie. If my child ever tells his teacher that he is afraid of something or someone, I absolutely want to know.

But I’m also trying to put myself in his teacher’s shoes, and I wonder if she was honestly baffled about how to handle this. While high school teachers may be better equipped/trained to manage these types of incidents, I’m sure a third-grade teacher never imagined that an eight- or nine-year-old student of hers would threaten other students this way. So I want to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is taking this seriously, but is possibly also flustered and not wanting to do or say the wrong thing.

This is one of those cases in which a phone call or in-person meeting is a good idea, particularly because you’re still unsettled by her response (and rightfully so). In some circumstances, our written words tend to sound curt and formal when our body language would convey something else entirely. It’s possible that she knows more about K’s background or family life than she can disclose, and that’s ok. I would reiterate your concern to her but in a way that also acknowledges her own difficult role in this. That might sound like this:

Mrs. X, thank you for meeting with me to talk this situation through a little more. I appreciate that you have cultivated a relationship with W that made him feel safe enough to come to you when he felt scared. Thank you for that. I spoke with W about the incident, but because he’s so young, I wanted to get a little more information directly from you about the conversation you had with him.

And then simply listen and ask follow-up questions. You could ask if she has observed the dynamics of the interactions between W and K in the days since the threat. Ask if she feels the situation has been dealt with to the best of everyone’s ability. I assume the answer to this is “yes” — she clearly spoke to K about it, hence the letter he wrote. But if she’s got a nagging feeling that she should have taken another step she hasn’t yet taken (spoken to the principal, for example, or called his parents), this may prompt her to do so. I would be trusting of her opinion at this point if you have no other reason not to trust it.

Finally, I am a little concerned that she may have singled W out to K as the person who told her about his comments, which were said to an entire table of classmates. I don’t know if that’s the case — she may have told him she heard it elsewhere and had K write notes to everyone who was at the table. But it’s something I would mention during your meeting — it’s important for our kids to feel that they can report these types of threats anonymously without it affecting their interactions with their peers.

At this time, unless his teacher flat-out refuses to speak to you any further on this, I don’t see a reason to take it to the principal. If W has another experience with the boy making similar statements, I would schedule a meeting with both the teacher and the principal at that point.

As for W... man, that kid did a really good job, going to his teacher. You must be so proud of him! I wrote a piece a while back about teaching our kids the difference between “tattling” and “reporting;” what W did was “report,” and that is great.

Praise him for that and encourage him to report anything else that makes him fearful or uncomfortable. You can certainly encourage him to tell you if something else happens with this child or another child, but I wouldn’t dwell on that too much — he told a responsible adult, just as he should, and that’s what matters.


Comments

    I can see several reasons why the teacher may not have made contact in this circumstance:

    1. The child who made the threat is diagnosed with an issue that may result in wild and outlandish statements like that being made on a regular basis. Attention deficit disorders, tourettes, and borderline personality disorder are all diagnoses which impact a young person's ability to regulate what is being said. I am a teacher who works with students like this on a daily basis, and some will say very outlandish things which are not even threats.

    2. It is not possible to make one-on-one contact with parents on a matter like this without starting a rumour that gets out of hand. I've seen one circumstance where a student was suspended for making a threat of this nature, and it turned into a rumour where the student had apparently given a time, date and targets which was completely false. Over half the school was absent, and the child who had a serious mental impairment was publicly shamed and hated by the community. A letter home would have further inflamed the situation and gathered media attention.

    3. The teacher/school felt that the matter was dealt with appropriately and the child who reported the issue seemed happy with the resolution. The safety of the class was assured and there was no mass hysteria as a result.

    4. The child may have been prompted to blurt something like that out because of a crappy home situation. If the teacher was aware of that, then they may have been worried about breaching the students' privacy.

    Teachers are professionals who are trained to handle situations like this; making contact with the teacher is entirely your prerogative, by please keep in mind that you may get a response which is very non-committal or non-descriptive in nature.

    I'm honestly not surprised that a young kid has "threatened" to kill other kids. It's learned behaviour. And it's not at all hard to pick up with violence on the news, games and tv shows. How many movies have a hero who tells the bad guy they're gonna kill them for some slight?

    Thinking back I can remember kids saying the wanted to kill someone, or multiple people. But they're little kids and prone to hyperbole without understanding it. It doesn't mean they actually want to kill their friends, it just means they're pissed at them and struggling to articulate it.

    I think it's good in the example above, that the teacher took action and obviously spoke with the child about it. Hopefully it made the child examine their feelings and think a bit about what they said. I'd hate to see a small child punished further for something that was obviously just a dumb, heat of the moment comment.

    Side note: It is probably worth the teacher trying to understand *why* the kid said it to their classmates. Is the child actually getting bullied by a bunch of them as well?

    This is an American problem, Australia has gun laws that have prevented this being an issue. Perhaps the "greatest" country on earth isn't?

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