On 04-10-17, I posted Terror Horror In Hoke County, a satirical headline. Satirical, because the article spoke of the out of school suspension of one Caitlin Miller, a five year-old girl, a kindergartener. Her offense? Caitlin was brandishing a stick, a vaguely gun shaped stick, in play. Where did she get the stick? She found it on the playground.
As is SMM practice in such situations, I e-mailed the Superintendent of the Hoke County, NC Schools, Dr. Freddie Williamson:
Good day. I am Mike McDaniel, a high school English teacher, and author. I not only write for my own blog, but many other web sites, among them: Wow! Magazine, Bearing Arms, and PJ Media.
Today I posted an article on the recent suspension of five year-old Caitlin Miller:
I thought you’d be interested in reading it. Should you have any comment, I’ll post it in its entirety, without editing.
Thank you for your time.
Stately McDaniel Manor
I do this because I know, as an educator, how easy it is to make charges against schools, and how willing many are to believe them. Schools are also often at a disadvantage in such matters, believing, in many cases correctly, it’s better to say little or nothing and just let things take their normal course and wither away. The public tends to have a relatively short attention span for most things. Giving the school involved a chance to respond is only fair.
Dr. Williamson did not respond, but Jodie L. Bryant, Director of Public Relations for the Hoke County Schools did. Her e-mail to me was something less than collegial and cordial:
Dear Mr. McDaniel,
Thank you for reaching out to us for comment regarding the recent suspension of a student in our school system, as the “facts” in your original article are not accurate and do not show the true nature of what happened. I have attached links to other news articles, as well as our statements, since you obviously had such trouble completing your research before posting your own article. I hope you find these resources helpful when correcting your article, as I’m sure you would like your readers to have an opportunity to learn of all the facts in the most unbiased way possible. I look forward to reading your new article once all of the facts have been included.
Jodie L. Bryant
Director of Public Relations
Hoke County Schools
310 Wooley Street
Raeford, NC 28376
Ph. (910) 875-4106
Fax (910) 875-3362
As readers will discover in the original article, I routinely write that there may be more than the media sources, on which I rely in writing initial articles, to discover. It’s well known the media is often incorrect, and often rushes to print with incomplete information. The sources I checked revealed little more than I included in that article, and I was dealing with a lengthy and violent thunderstorm–I have Hughesnet Satellite internet service–as I was doing that research. Any omission was not for a lack of trying. In any case, I’ve had the opportunity to review the three sources Ms. Bryant so kindly provided, but first, here is the “Joint Parent Statement,” to which Ms. Bryant referred:
The statement was obviously typed by the School District and merely signed and dated by the parent involved. I’ll not over-lawyer this, merely note Ms. Bratcher’s recitation of what Caitlyn said to an unnamed teacher appears to be third hand at best. From the tone and voice of the statement, it would appear Ms. Bratcher was not present at the time, nor does she claim to be. Ms. Bryant did not provide a statement from that teacher, or their name. Ms. Bratcher asserts Caitlin was not playing any sort of game, “and there was no talk about ‘kings and queens.” How Ms. Bratcher would have known what Caitlin or any other child was imagining in their play, particularly when she was apparently not present, is not explained.
Ms. Bratcher is, however, certain the stick involved “looked just like a gun,” a matter upon which reasonable people may disagree.
Stick indistinguishable to some from an actual handgun
Reasonable people may also be somewhat curious why Ms. Bratcher felt it necessary to introduce race into the matter. What difference, after all, does the race of five year-olds make in a situation like this? Ms. Bratcher asserts her children should be able to play without the threat of being shot. Of course, but in actuality and at worst, they faced only the “threat” of another child, a little girl, pointing a stick in their direction and saying “bang, bang.”
If we further assume Ms. Bratcher’s relaying of what Caitlin said to the unnamed teacher to be completely accurate, one might be alarmed at Caitlin’s bloodthirsty assertion of murder, until one realizes we’re dealing with a little girl–a kindergartener–at play, holding a stick, a stick she found laying about the playground, and saying “bang, bang.” There was no danger, no threat, no actual gun, and no homicidal intent to harm anyone, just a little girl playing.
During my police career, I took, read and otherwise handled thousands of citizen statements. Ms. Bratcher’s statement was obviously coached, and certainly grammatically enhanced. I make no statement about Ms. Bratcher personally—I don’t know anyone involved–I merely observe that the grammar, syntax, and construction of the statement is not at all what one finds in citizen statements, but it is certainly what one would find in a statement written for Ms. Bratcher, a statement including everything the School District would want to justify its actions, and to protect itself to the greatest degree possible. Whether Ms. Bratcher asked school officials to write it for her, or whether they took that liberty, I don’t know.
What’s that you say? I’m blaming the victim? The victim of what? A non-existent threat by a tiny child wielding a non-existent gun? The School District is using the apparently willing Ms. Bratcher to build a narrative that justifies its actions. There is nothing improper in asking reasonable questions and making reasonable inferences about that narrative, or the motives of those constructing it. Ms. Bratcher is a second-hand, non-eyewitness, and her two boys, certainly not victims.
On to the sources Ms. Bryant provided:
The article in the Fayetteville Observer was not particularly illuminating:
Hoke County Schools can’t release more details about an incident involving a 5-year-old student who was suspended for using a stick shaped like a gun during recess last week.
Nick Sojka, the schools system’s lawyer, said officials asked Brandy Miller for written authorization to disclose more details about the incident involving her daughter, Caitlin, a kindergarten student at J.W. McLauchlin Elementary School.
“Up to this point, she has chosen to not provide that authorization although she has continued to make herself available to the media,” he said. “She is free to share her viewpoints regarding her child, but the school system cannot share its side of the story without authorization of the parent.
The rest of the article–by all means, take the link if you, gentle reader, are so inclined; take the links to all of them–merely expounds on why the School District is not going to be more forthcoming, though it does essentially repeat much of Ms. Bratcher’s school district facilitated (constructed?) statement.
Local station WRAL.com added little more, though Ms. Bryant was quoted:
School system spokeswoman Jodie Bryant said the principal took Catlin aside and, after considering the school policy against violence and threats, administrators suspended her.
‘We have to ensure the safety of all of our students, and we look at each situation, each incident, on its own, and we look at all the facts and everything that has taken place, and in this instance, a child felt threatened and did not feel safe, so it’s our job to ensure that we do what we can from now on so he does feel safe,’ Bryant said.
Again, reasonable people may disagree about such perceptions. Did the boys really think little Caitlin was “shooting” them? Did they really think they were “unsafe?” Didn’t the unnamed teacher tell the boys they were in no danger, that the “gun” with which Caitlin was “shooting” them, was merely a stick, or did the teacher truly believe grave danger existed? If Caitlin represents such a terrifying threat, why was she not expelled? How can the two beyond hyper-sensitive boys—if they actually feared as the school district is representing–ever again feel safe with Caitlin–and sticks–about? And where, pray tell, was the “violence?” Doesn’t a finding of violence require some actual, overt act? Anything less would be a threat, wouldn’t it, and didn’t the school district already deal with that?
Caitlin’s mother was also quoted:
[Brandy] Miller said the one-day suspension for a kindergarten student was too extreme. She believes some other form of discipline, and an explanation to Catlin about why what she did was wrong, would have been more appropriate.
‘I can understand that they have policies, but really are the same policies meant to apply to a 5-year-old doing a role-playing game with her friends as they are to a 16-year-old who brings a pistol to school? I just don’t see the correlation,’ Miller said.
Reasonable people, like Ms. Miller, may not see the correlation. The local ABC station did little more than observe the School District stands by its decision:
Leaders with Hoke County Schools are standing by a policy that led to the suspension of a 5-year-old girl for communicating threats.
If a child is suspended in this school district under these policies, there’s been procedural due process, there’s been documentation, and there’s been substantial evidence shown in this policy violation,’ said Nick Sojka, Hoke County Schools’ attorney.
Actual gun (not a stick)
Ms. Bryant also provided an official statement:
Note that Ms. Bryant writes: “…another parent has come forward and has provided us with a written statement that she has asked us to share.” This is misleading. As I’ve previously noted, the statement was not “written” by Ms. Bratcher, which to some may seem a matter of semantics, but as I’m sure readers can discern, it is actually a matter of credibility, and therefore, of some importance, as the school district may soon discover. The sources provided by Ms. Bryant suggest Mrs. Miller has engaged an attorney.
Disturbing is Ms. Bryant’s telling of the threats received by the schools. As regular readers know, impolite discourse is not allowed at SMM, and in my original article, I wrote:
I’m sending him [the school superintendent] a copy of this article Should you decided, gentle readers, to contact him as well, please use the civilized discourse you always practice here. Gentle persuasion is always best, until those one seeks to gently persuade demonstrate they are immune to conscience, shame and reason.
Obviously, such vitriol is unwarranted and inexcusable.
As Ms. Bryant requested, I examined the “facts” she provided, and included, unedited and whole, everything she sent. What Ms. Bryant, and the school district she represents, do not apparently understand–and this is true of most schools–witness statements with which they agree—and write–do not thereby automatically become “facts.” School personnel are not trained and experienced investigators, though they often play at investigations. They tend to be biased toward any statement that supports school policy, or what they have done, as is clearly the case here.
The ultimate question is what a reasonable educator–a reasonable adult–given the same circumstances, would have believed, and what they should have done.
Let us assume the following–giving the School District the benefit of every doubt–as fact:
(1) Caitlin was holding a stick she found on the playground (there is apparently no dispute about this).
(2) Caitlin was playing an imaginary game (the school district seems to be disputing Caitlin’s imagination).
(3) Caitlin pointed the stick at two boys of the same age and said “bang, bang” (benefit of the doubt)!
(4) The boys were actually terrified, actually believed Caitlin was pointing a real gun at them, and was putting their lives in imminent danger (benefit of the doubt).
(5) The teacher, upon confronting Caitlin, discovered the stick was not, in fact, an actual gun (this has not been confirmed by the school district, but since there is a contemporaneous media photo of the stick which was likely made possible by the school district, one can reasonably believe it to be true).
Notice I am not including the hearsay about what Caitlin may or may not have said to the anonymous teacher, nor do I speculate about what Caitlin, or the teacher, were thinking at the time. Ms. Bratcher, and obviously, the school district, are attempting to say that Caitlin was not playing a game of “kings and queens,” but there is no possible way for them to know that. The other children with whom Caitlin was playing may have, in an instant, turned and run off before the teacher’s attention was called to Caitlin, and even if no other children were involved, we’re dealing with the imagination of a five year-old. Ms. Bratcher’s inclusion of race, and her fears regarding the shooting deaths of young black males, while inflammatory to those bearing certain political sympathies, have no bearing on this situation.
It was a stick. If one does not give the school district the benefit of the doubt and credits Brandy Miller’s account of what Caitlin was doing, the school district’s grounds for discipline of any sort have less than no reasonable basis. If the school district’s account is credited, there is no reasonable basis.
All this–the school district’s account–accepted as fact, the question remains: what should a reasonable educator have done?
Reasonable educators know children play all manner of imaginary games, including pointing fingers, chicken fingers, Pop Tarts chewed into crude gun shapes, and two-dimensional paper representations of guns, and even sticks, at each other and saying “bang!” They know such play is normal, and represents no actual threat of harm. The unnamed teacher involved, if they, for even a second, could have thought that crude stick a gun, certainly learned the truth of its nature within seconds.
What we do not know is the teacher’s approach to Caitlin, her—I’m assuming a female teacher–demeanor. Five year-old girls are easily intimidated by adults, and Caitlin appears to have no disciplinary history. Little children do not think in the same way as adults. They don’t process questions in the same way. What we take for granted, what we routinely leave unsaid, is beyond young children. Asking questions of such children in the wrong ways provokes incomplete and/or incorrect answers. Was that the case here? We don’t know.
Discovering Caitlin represented no danger whatever–would any rational adult truly believe little Caitlin really intended to kill those boys?–at most, she should have taken the stick, told Caitlin not to do that again, and sent her off to play. If she truly believd the boys were in fear of their lives, all she needed to do was show them the stick, assure them it was not a gun, assure them Caitlin was just playing–she meant harm to no one–and send them off to play. Imaginary deadly danger averted; imaginary lives saved.
That’s what a reasonable person would have done.
I am, of course, interested to know whether every child ever playing with an imaginary gun, or some innocuous representation of a gun, has been suspended in this school district. After all, with a zero tolerance policy, what choice would school officials have? It would also be interesting to know whether the school district has a zero tolerance policy for some kinds of imaginary play, and what imaginary play might be acceptable.
What do you think, gentle readers? I’m sure Ms. Bryant would enjoy hearing from you—kindly, please–on this matter, just as much, if not more, than she has been anticipating this article.