Science Teachers Weep! School Evacuated for “Chemical Spill”

Hi Folks! This note was posted by a high school student commenting on the story of the school that allowed two students to fry Ferrari red because they weren’t carrying a doctor’s prescription for non-prescription sunblock.   But maybe that school loses to this one, in the sticklers department. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: This reminds me of a ‘chemical spill’ my school had a couple months back. Keep in mind this is a high school, with around 800 14-18 year olds walking the halls.

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We were told to evacuate because of a ‘chemical spill’ in one of the science labs a bit before noon. Now, there were some actual dangerous chemicals in some of the rooms, so we evacuated without complaint. Soon, we found out what the ‘chemical spill’ was: mercury. Someone had dropped an old thermometer made of mercury, so the entire school had to be evacuated.

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We had to sit out on the football field for four hours. There were no clouds to block the sun, it was actually fairly chilly out, and about half the school hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch. No one was allowed to leave to stadium, even to grab a sweatshirt that was sitting ten feet away in their car.

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They had to test everyone who had been inside that room that day for traces of mercury. Two hours later, they all came up negative. I got a mild sunburn from that day, which I’m pretty sure was a bigger cancer risk than a bit of mercury.
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Also, since I nearly failed chemistry, I asked my homeroom teacher (who happened to be a science teacher) if the mercury was really that bad for us. He said no, mercury is usually only harmful if ingested. So my entire school was kept out on a lawn freezing our hungry butts off and getting sunburned not only for two hours of our school day, but two hours AFTER school had ended, to ensure no one was licking the mercury off the floor.

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In all, 100 kids got tested — really just their clothes and shoes — or about one eighth of the school. The school is Totino-Grace high school located in Fridley, Minnesota. Here’s a piece about it that ran on KARE 11.
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On a side note, the school did away with the glass and mercury thermometers a couple years ago, but I guess they missed a few. – A Student

WWMCD? (What Would Madame Curie Do?)

“Since When Does a Simple Fall = E.R. Visit?”

Hi Readers — Just a little note from one of you:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: My two-year old daughter face-planted while running on a sidewalk yesterday late afternoon. Now she’s got a scrape on her forehead and a “Groucho Marx”-looking mustache/skinned upper lip. We checked that her teeth and nose were fine, and she stopped crying before we got home. But, I cannot tell you how many moms (of all people!?) have stopped me to ask if I took her to the emergency room. When I say no, they look at me like I’m crazy.
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Look: She fell while running. It’s no worse than having a skinned knee, just in a bit more obvious place. We put ice and Neosporin on it, and she was back to herself by dinner time. Since when do we rush off to the ER for every scrape, bruise, and cut? It’s no wonder that medical insurance is skyrocketing if we rush off frantically to the hospital every time a child falls down. And, why react with a gasp and “Oh my gosh!!” to seeing a child with a scrape and a scab on her face? It’s teaching her that something terrible happened to her, when it was really just a fall.
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Seems to me we are instilling a culture of fear by reacting with such grandiosity to such a normal accident. Beyond that, I can’t tell you how many moms have told me that “because she’s a girl, you really should put [insert numerous product names] on it to minimize the scarring.” I just don’t think that I am (literally) scarring my child by keeping my reaction to a sane minimum. – Jen
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Dear Jen: I’ve wondered myself why I’m at the pediatrician’s office so much more than my mom was with me. I  think it’s all part of  “Worst-First” thinking. We are encouraged to consider how every incident or sniffle COULD turn into the worst possible thing, and how terrible would we feel if we hadn’t addressed it with all guns blazing.  “Wait and see” has become “Wait and see how you feel when your child doesn’t recover and it’s all your fault!”
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No wonder it’s so hard to resist the impulse to  make a big fuss, or at the very least, spend a lot of time and money. – L.

Furor — and Aftermath — Over Suspension of Biking Students

Hi Readers! Quite a few of you sent in this story, now gone viral, about the high school principal who suspended upward of 6o students for their “prank” — a mass bike ride to school. As WOOD TV reported:

Seniors called police for an escort, and even called Walker’s mayor, who rode in the parade.

“Police escort, with the mayor, who brought us donuts. …The mayor brought us donuts…” said a group of seniors following the ride.

But school official weren’t told in advance, hence the word prank, and were not happy with the event.

They kicked the seniors out of school for their last day and threatened to keep them from walking in graduation ceremonies set for May 30.

The principal was upset not only because the ride led to traffic snarling (and principal snarling, apparently), but also because, “”If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and Kinney, Fruit Ridge, then maybe that’s my responsibility.”

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe things that go on outside of school have nothing to do with the principal. And maybe people who are 17 or 18 and are responsible enough to call the police AHEAD OF TIME are responsible enough to take a bike ride. And maybe bike riding is GOOD.

All these points seem to have occurred — belatedly — to the principal who has since issued an apology. Mostly it seems she was taken by surprise and overwhelmed with worry. In the cold light of dawn (and massive media attention) she realized this was not truly a “prank.” It was the way we’d like our kids to act pretty much all the time.

So — hats off to the biking seniors, and to a  principal willing to do the brave thing and say, “I was wrong.” Everyone is growing up so fast! – L.

Field Trip Frenzy! Mad Mom Vents to Media

Hi Readers — Our definition of a good parent these days seems to be one who sees every incident as upsetting — possibly even devastating — to his/her child, and is eager to tell the press about it. Latest case in point? This story, from the Chicago Sun-Times, about a 6-year-old who told his mom he got “locked in jail” on a field trip. The mom sounds livid.

Note, please: This was a field trip to the local precinct, not a 2 a.m. visit by the secret police. And the boy wasn’t locked up. And it shouldn’t be a big deal because it’s NOT a big deal. Why do we see everything through “OMG!” lenses, when it comes to kids? – L.

Now THIS boy really was locked up -- for a month -- for stealing two rabbits. That's different from a school field trip!

Justice! 3rd Grader with Cool Knife No Longer a Criminal

Hi Readers — Here’s lovely news! Remember that third grader who was showing off his pocket knife after school and ended up EXPELLED? We ran the story on Feb. 17, asking for help and media coverage.

Got both — and JUSTICE! It started here, so thank you, readers (and 141 commenters)!! Let’s hear it for creating sanity in the world! Here’s a note from the mom who sent in the original story. — L.

Thank you thank you thank you for your incredible outpouring of support and encouragement!  
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It worked! Multiple blogs, facebook posts, online and news editorials, newsgroups threads, community group emails, a petition that garnered nearly100 supporters in just one day, two new websites urging balance to Zero Tolerance, and a middle school petition at SMS… way to mobilize!!
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The boy’s record has been cleared and his expulsion repealed.  He has been invited back to school and our superintendent will be calling the local police department to urge them to drop the charges.  However, the damage has been done and he’s terrified of Cumberland, so he will remain where he’s at for the time being.
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I think what is in order now is a very heartfelt apology from the administration, the district, and the police, and a complete overhaul of our state and district policy regarding Zero Tolerance, so this does not happen again. Many many thanks! — Julie Colwell
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In a follow-up note, I asked Julie how the story spread and got action. We can all learn some social media/social action lessons from what she wrote back:
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This was a success of social media, actually.  None of the large outlets picked it because the boy’s parents weren’t willing to talk until the criminal charges were dropped.  I didn’t want it to become old news, so I posted your blog and the letter to the editor in the Sunnyvale Sun (which is our tiny local paper — but everybody reads it) on my kids’ school newsgroups and Facebook pages.  And I started a petition on change.org which sends an automatic email to our state reps, state superintendent, district superintendent, principal and several other education officials every time someone signs it.  How annoying is that?
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From there, it spread to more local newsgroups and blogs and other social media.  Someone started a Facebook page on Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance.  I must have gotten over a hundred emails in support.
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But Free-Range Kids was first.  Many many thanks!  And also thanks to whomever on Free-Range Kids suggested the petition on change.com.  I’m going to keep pursuing that.  Hopefully we can make this sanity permanent!

Does Teacher’s Pet = Pedophile Alert?

Hi Folks — Here’s another little story that reminds us how  Worst-First thinking has become de rigeur when it comes to kids in the company of adults: A young Teach for America teacher took a student out for a hamburger and was immediately reprimanded by the school.

Yes, rules are rules, and he probably should have signed a lot of forms first, but sometimes — weirdly enough — a moment comes up that is not pre-scheduled and pre-approved and pre-notarized. It’s what we used to call “spontaneity.” (Now we call it “actionable.”) So off he and the kid went, got burgers and came right back.

The child’s mom sounds livid. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, she said, “He walked right out the front door with my child…This was not a role model.”

A better role model would NOT take an interest in her son?

I GET that we are terrified of adults grooming our kids into Sandusky  submission. The Miramonte stories shake me, too. But do we really want to treat every teacher-child interaction as prelude to perversion? My mentor, social studies teacher Genevieve MacDougall, took me out of high school for a few days, with my parents’ permission. She wanted me to drive her from Chicago down to Southern Illinois to check out a one-room school house she was thinking of buying. She paid for my meals and my room at a little hotel, and it is still one of the fondest memories of my life. I dedicated my Free-Range Kids book to her!

I doubt she’d be allowed to do that today. As the teacher in the hamburger story was quoted as saying:

“I care for my students and am trying to make a difference in their lives,” he said. “I try to build positive relationships with my students, and in that effort, I bought a student in my class a hamburger for lunch that we ate back at the school with others. I regret this mistake, but I am proud of YES Prep, and the work that I do there. I am glad that Yes Prep investigated the situation and found no reason that I should not continue to teach my students.”

As parents, we must (I say it every time this topic comes up) teach our kids to recognize, resist and report abuse. But we can NOT treat every teacher who dotes on our darlings as dangerous. Let’s bring that pendulum back to the middle, where it belongs. — L.

Pithy, Witty & Wise

Hi Readers! I thought the analogy about overreacting, below, was  great, which is why I’m posting it here. I have also long sensed a connection between overprotecting our kids from “strangers” and overprotecting their bodies from “strangers” — i.e., germs. Either way, kids get one single, isolating  message: “Anything beyond your immediate circle (of bacteria or people) is bad. Resist all attempts at connecting.” Feh. –– L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Loved this comment [on the Build-An-Adorable Choking Hazard post] :  “Which is why I am always going crazy.” Exactly. As if parenthood isn’t demanding enough, now we have to consider every possible bad thing that might potentially happen and prepare for it as if it is Armageddon itself. No thanks.

By way of metaphor, scientists now believe that part of the reason for the giant surge in food allergies  is a severe lack of dirt eating by today’s children. (Seriously.) Kids aren’t getting enough exposure to germs and dirt and so their bodies aren’t learning how to tell the difference between an actual threat and something normally benign.

In a similar sense we are constantly bombarded with so many “fear this” messages that we are all losing our ability to tell the difference between a real threat (flame throwers in the hands of toddlers) and benign cuddly things.

So, I will continue to make my kids play in the dirt, avoid hand sanitizer, go to the park without me, play with toys clearly labeled as approved only for children over the age of 99, and *gasp* even talk to strangers.

I will prepare my children to live in the world and to be able to make good choices and tell the difference between true dangers and legal warnings.
I will do this because someone needs to ensure that “Idiocracy” is not looked on as a documentary by future generations. — Think Banned Thoughts