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‘I told them I thought there was a coyote’: Denver teachers and parents grapple with how to tell children about threat-induced school closure

Educators and parents, please share your thoughts about today’s closure in our survey at the end of this story.

Parents across the Denver region faced a surprising and wrenching decision Wednesday morning: what to tell their children about why school had been canceled overnight.

They’d had to offer explanations multiple times already this year, for snow days and, in the case of Denver, a teacher strike. But Wednesday’s closure was caused by something scarier and less concrete: a credible threat of violence by a Florida woman who police say is armed and “infatuated” with the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

Parents began airing their anxiety about what to tell their children early in the morning:

A 2016 article by the National Association of School Psychologists called “Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers” began circulating on social media. It advises maintaining a sense of normalcy — difficult to do when schools are closed — and talking openly with children about their fears.

But many parents said they were navigating the news without much guidance. Some said they had decided to tell their children the truth about why schools were closed, even though doing so caused them distress:

Others said they had decided to obscure the truth — and that that decision had been painful as well:

One local educator, Janet Worley, a principal at SkyView Academy in Douglas County, explained on her blog why she had chosen not to tell her the real reason their school went on lock out Tuesday:

In moments of escalating emotions, those forging the path must do so calmly. Without calm, chaos wins. Despite their personal emotions, fears, or concerns, I commend our families and our staff. Families allowed us to lead the controlled release. Staff responded to every direction without question. I pause to confess that in the moment, I lied to a few students. The intensity in moments of emergency do not go unnoticed by our littles. They look to the adults for cues. I knew immediately that I needed to carry this suitcase. I knew because, in those moments, the truth would elicit fear. I knew that I could not tell the truth and simultaneously take care of them and effectively ensure safety and order during the controlled release. So, I told them I thought there was a coyote in the parking lot. The number one reason we initiate a lock out on our campus, coyotes. They believed without question. I own my deception and confess it. However, under no circumstances will I ever make their suitcases heavy intentionally. Not when it is within my power to protect them.

In addition to forcing difficult conversations, the closures also caused the families of nearly half a million Colorado students to make alternate plans for the day — and potentially beyond, if the woman is not found quickly. Districts are frequently hesitant to close schools because the schools provide stability and meals for many students who might not otherwise be safe or well fed. (During the teacher strike, for example, that issue was one reason Denver kept schools open with barebones staff.)

For some, the closures also renewed attention to gun laws that allowed a woman who may have mental illness to buy a powerful weapon without a waiting period — and to the fact that world feels scarier in some ways now than it did 20 years ago, at the time of the Columbine shooting.

Correction (April 17, 2019): This article has been updated to identify Janet Worley as a principal and to note that her school had been on “lock out,” not “lock down.”

Educators and parents, we’d like to hear from you. How are you talking to your children about today’s closure? How does this feel different from other safety threats? Please share your thoughts in our survey.