A parent wants the Laguna Beach Unified School District to set parameters for what sensitive topics teachers can appropriately discuss with students.
Anita Razin asked the school board April 23 to consider adopting a policy on how to communicate with students about “traumatic events,” according to a district staff report.
Razin said she wants to be the one to talk to her children about the Boston bombings, the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, and other well-publicized acts.
In April 2012, Razin learned that a teacher at Thurston Middle School mentioned allegations that a Los Angeles teacher allegedly spoon-fed semen to blindfolded students.
“I didn’t say anything [at the time],” Razin said. “I talked to another mom and she went to the principal.”
In December, Razin picked up her seventh-grade daughter at the end of the school day, just shortly after news of the Newtown shooting broke.
“She had not sat down [in the car] before saying, ‘Did you hear about Connecticut?’” Razin said.
“How did you know?” Razin asked.
“ ‘The teacher talked about it during class time,’ ” she said her daughter told her.
FOR THE RECORD:
This story has been updated to clarify that parent Anita Razin wants the school district to set parameters for what teachers can appropriately discuss with students. In fact, Razin wants no teacher to start inappropriate discussions in the classroom. In addition, the article misstated that a seventh-grade class at Thurston Middle School watched news reports of the Sandy Hook shootings on a teacher’s computer. In fact, it was the teacher who watched news reports — not the class — and then initiated a conversation about the tragedy with students. Finally, the article also incorrectly stated that Razin picked up her daughter 30 minutes after the Sandy Hook news broke; she picked up her daughter at the end of the school day.
Razin eventually mentioned to Thurston Principal Jenny Salberg that she had heard about in-class discussions about the Los Angeles teacher and his alleged disgusting classroom antics.
Salberg said she spoke with both teachers upon learning about the alleged incidents.
Citing restrictions on discussing personnel matters, the principal declined to elaborate.
Razin didn’t write a formal complaint against either teacher.
“I didn’t want to make a big [deal],” she said.
Mary Scifres experienced a similar incident with her son, who is now in the ninth grade. When he was in eighth grade at Thurston, he came home from school and said a teacher mentioned the Los Angeles incident.
“My son said [the topic] came out of nowhere, as if the teacher initiated it,” said Scifres. “It was not related to the curriculum.” She did not specify the subject being taught.
Scifres told Salberg what her son told her.
"[Salberg] was supportive and upset,” Scifres said. “She immediately met with the teacher or group of teachers.”
When news broke about the Newtown shootings, teachers were told that if students are upset they should let administrators know because the children could then be directed to person qualified to help them, such as a counselor, Salberg said.
Teachers and administrators also met to discuss how to handle Boston.
“Staff reminded teachers not to get into in-depth conversations but [direct] kids to speak to their parents,” said Deni Christensen, assistant superintendent of instructional services.
The district communicated with parents the afternoon following the Boston bombings and sent follow-up emails to principals the next day, Supt. Sherine Smith wrote in an email.
“We try to keep information from impacting the classroom if possible,” Smith said. “If an individual staff member discusses something inappropriate, or in an inappropriate way with students, then that person will be addressed one-on-one by a supervisor.”
It’s difficult protecting kids from content that can be accessed in seconds on a smart phone or a computer, Salberg said.
Laguna schools are not the only ones lacking clear guidelines for in-class discussions. The nearby Newport-Mesa Unified School District does not have a policy guiding teachers on what to talk about, said spokeswoman Laura Boss.
“We rely on the professionalism of teachers to share age-appropriate information,” Boss said.
However, Irvine Unified School District has a policy for “controversial issues,” which it adopted 40 years ago.
Smith said the district will continue to urge principals to discuss sensitive matters as they arise with staff.
“What a teacher tolerates in a high school classroom is different from an elementary classroom,” said Christensen, a former high school principal. “Teachers make mistakes. Teachers are put in a difficult situation in the classroom. There is not an easy, formulaic way to handle [tragic events].”
Top of the World Elementary School Principal Ron La Motte also redirects students if they have a question or comment about a traumatic event.
“We have counselors [students] can talk with, or we recommend they talk to their parents,” La Motte said.
Scifres praised the district’s prompt communication to parents following the Boston bombings, and supports a unified policy to deal with questions students may ask while at school.
“Traumatic or violent events happen all the time, and with our instant news access, it leads to the question of how to handle or whether to handle [those events inside the classroom],” Scifres said.
Laguna Beach’s Razin understands teachers didn’t intend harm.
“All I’m asking is to exercise common sense,” Razin said. “I’m the parent of a child who has nightmares. The real world is not pretty, but for a brief time in childhood, we can pretend it’s not that bad.”
Communication policy suggestion
Thurston Middle School parent Anita Razin suggested a policy that addresses communication guidelines between district staff and students regarding sensitive news topics. Below is a portion she sent to the Coastline Pilot:
“Teachers’ freedom of speech should be curtailed when their captive audience is made up entirely of children and he or she is unable to determine whether or not to talk about an event/topic/information without reasonable, meaningful or academic value.
“News stories that include sexually vulgar, violent, or harmful content are best handled by a professional or parent, and teachers should not initiate, discuss or read about these types of events with students. If a student brings up the topic, calmly direct him or her to a counselor.”