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:
How does one tell their kids school is closed because of a woman who wants to kill kids? How do I make sure they aren’t scared to go to school? How do I ever let them go to school and out of my sight again? Seriously, I need suggestions.— Amanda Hatfield (@FoolNature) April 17, 2019
So practically all school Districts in the Denver metro are shut down while authorities hunt this woman down. What do you tell your kids today?— Joshua Dorkin (@jrdorkin) April 17, 2019
Anyone have any good ideas on talking to little kids about this? #Denver https://t.co/xbkcrJ1DCE
Anyone have advice on what to tell my kids about why their school is closed today that won’t add to the trauma? Yesterday they were on lockdown over this.— Lesser known Jen (@LesserKnownJen) April 17, 2019
How do I make them feel safe? https://t.co/4UJj8frTGs
My kids are about to wake up in #Denver, and I'm not sure what to tell them about why they can't go to school today.— Nick Gully (@nickgully) April 17, 2019
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:
Took a deep breath and told my 14 year old ‘there was a woman who is armed making threats, the FBI and police can’t find her so you are home today.’ I will likely tell my 9 year old the same thing, they are entitled to the truth even if it’s scary.— Amber Mathias (@ajmathias02) April 17, 2019
We have a kindergartner and we have always been absolutely honest with her. We will tell her that there is a potentially dangerous person who may want to harm kids. So they have closed all the schools today.— GSkarad (@g_sk_one) April 17, 2019
They must be told the truth, or at least, a filtered and diluted version of the truth to the younger children. When they return to school, other children will talk and teachers will have to bridle discussions. But, unfortunately, they must be told the truth. This is horrible!— John Gillespie (@JJGill7) April 17, 2019
Others said they had decided to obscure the truth — and that that decision had been painful as well:
Just got listen to my wife lie to my six year-old about why he doesn’t have school today, because what the hell are you supposed to tell him? #denver— Kevin Simpson (@relasine) April 17, 2019
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.
I’ll never forget my 7-yr-old niece recounting active shooter drill at her school: “They gave us a sucker so we’d stay quiet.” She’s in JeffCo. My mom & sister-in-law are public school teachers in metro Denver. All out of school. When do we admit that our gun policy is insanity? https://t.co/YQ369jwuz2— Laura Shunk (@laurashunk) April 17, 2019
Thirty plus years as a teacher. I have never had a day off because there was a "credible threat" to schools. Today 57 schools and districts in Denver, including mine, are closed because of a credible threat. I feel so incredibly sad. What kind of world do we live in?— Carol Wilcox (@carwilc) April 17, 2019
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.