Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats

Sending the Kids to School Amid the Bomb Threats


“Why didn’t you tell me about the bomb threat at school?” eleven-year-old Brennan said when he burst through the door, before he’d even shaken off his backpack.

“Oh, honey, I didn’t know before you left,” I said. “I would never keep that a secret.”

With the violence in the headlines very much on people’s minds, our schools were suddenly the subject of an anonymous threat, sent late the night before to the local police department. While Brennan was upset that he’d had to learn about it from a friend, some parents were complaining that the district should have communicated more quickly and clearly with us, too. As it turned out, there would be plenty of opportunities to refine our information-sharing, because threats of bomb and gun violence against the schools continued for a week.

“It was so much better this time because they told us,” ten-year-old Liddy said, after the next threat. Her teacher had mentioned the situation and said police were in the building to help keep everyone safe. As distressing as it is that my kids can now compare the reactions of authority figures in such circumstances, their insights have something to tell us about how we can do better in the future.

Liddy wanted to talk about the threats, but not too much. She needed to be able to turn off the conversation. The person who handled this best, she said, was her afterschool program director. “Kaitlyn told us the truth,” Liddy said. “And she didn’t promise everything would be fine, but said it was her job to keep us safe. And then she said people could choose to stay and ask questions or go do an activity.”

Things that weighed on Brennan, along with hearing about the first threat from a rumor instead of a trusted adult, was seeing some of his classmates pulled from school by anxious parents, and worrying that the heightened security would mean missing recess. “We did get recess!” he said triumphantly, later that day. “There was a cop on the roof!”

The image pushed my heart into my throat. Liddy said the police presence was “like a wall of cops.” I had seen a few officers at drop-off, milling about and talking to the kids, and their presence felt less ominous than I’d feared. But in her sheltered experience, Liddy hadn’t experienced police in those numbers anywhere, much less at school. And they’re easily three times her size. Of course they felt, to her, exactly like a wall.

When the third threat came, my phone rang at six a.m., jolting me from sleep. I let Brennan hear the carefully formulated message after breakfast. He listened, and asked, “I’m still going to school, right?” I was glad we were passing on some kind of confidence. But just as he headed for the door to get his bike out from the garage, he turned back to call out a question: “Has there ever been a bomb threat when there was really a bomb?”

Dropping off Liddy, I saw a mom in a head scarf offer our weary-looking school counselor a hug. It reminded me that others’ experiences of all this ran much deeper than mine: parents who have to worry about their kids because of the all-too-real threat of bias and intolerance; families who have come here, to this very school, after leaving places where violence and trauma were a part of everyday life; and kids whose skin color alone means they might have a completely experience of law enforcement than my kids.

All week, I watched teachers and staff put their own safety concerns aside to manage kids’ distress and competing demands from parents and administrators. I was glad that the complaints I read on various parent listservs were balanced out by notes of gratitude, reminders that the person behind the threats could be one of our own troubled kids in need of support, and even a volunteer effort to deliver breakfast to staff at the affected schools. It was this sense of community that bolstered me the most.

My husband John and I shared the goal of keeping the days as normal as possible. But I still got a rush of adrenaline with each new update and phone call. I texted my sister about it one morning. In her line of work, this is familiar territory, and I wanted to get her take.

She wrote back that the kids would be likely safer that day than any other. With so much to worry about in the world, she said, we already have to decide whether we’ll ever let them leave the house at all. And then do it. She also said that parents should be grateful that they were told.

The kids want the very things we want. The right information. The confidence that people who care are doing all they can to keep us safe. And, ultimately, the knowledge that we’re not in this alone. Making sure that our kids get those things — that is something we can control.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.


I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The line in movies, books, and television shows that drives me most crazy is when a parent says to a child, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” There are variations on this theme:

“Everything will be fine.”

“You aren’t going to die.” (or daddy or mommy isn’t going to die)

“You will be safe.”

“I promise, nothing will go wrong.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” is what I want to say in response.

I hope real life parents are wiser and more forthright than fictional parents but I can’t be certain. Real life parents might not verbalize these kinds of promises, but many do everything they possibly can to provide the illusion that nothing harmful will ever happen to themselves or their children. I think this is dangerous.

The world is not a safe place. Whether a child is on the slide at the playground in suburban Minneapolis or a child is at the grocery store in a country like Somalia, there can be no guarantees. Pretending like there are, pretending like a child will never get splinter (and the parents will sue the city park and recreation board if he does!) or that a child will never experience illness, violence, grief, pain, or loss is dangerous and deceitful.

May 24th there was a suicide attack at a restaurant in Djibouti, where I live. This was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in Djibouti. Ever. School was cancelled the next day and police checks popped up all over the city. People were on edge, nervous, scared. When school did reopen, there were armed guards, concrete barriers, searches at the door, restrictions on parents entering, limited parking.

I did not tell my 8-year old daughter everything was going to be fine. I didn’t promise her that I would always keep her safe. I didn’t pretend like nothing happened, like nothing had changed. I didn’t simplify the horror (though I didn’t show her the gruesome photos online). I named the name of the terror group who had taken responsibility. I named the name of the restaurant, which was on a street she knows well. I told her what they did and who died.

I didn’t promise to keep her safe because I can’t guarantee that and God forbid, if something should happen, I don’t want her to think that Mommy and Daddy failed or lied or simply didn’t try hard enough. I don’t want her to believe that I am in control, that I’m a god-like mother. I don’t want her courage and her choices and her reactions to be built on the faulty foundation of an illusion of security or invincibility.

I want her courage, choices, and reactions to be built on the confidence that no matter what happens, we love her. No matter what happens we will do everything possible to keep our family safe, protected, healed. But I am not in control of drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, bullies. And, we are people of faith. I believe that no matter what happens, there is a plan in place and it is a plan that has our ultimate good in mind. If our efforts at keeping safe, protected, and healed don’t work, my children need to be able to fall back on something unshakeable, not a foolish promise I could never possibly keep.

The world is scary and anything horrible could happen at any moment but we will not live in fear. If I promised nothing bad would ever happen to my children, and if I wanted to not be a liar, I and my children would be forced into a world cut off from relationships, travel, nature, sports, aging, service, work, all the things that make life beautiful and true and connected.

Some people might look at the choices we have made as a family and conclude that we don’t care about safety, that we take foolish risks, that we not only don’t promise safety but that we lead our children directly into danger. We live in the Horn of Africa and travel to Somalia. Two of our children are at boarding school in Kenya.

I care about safety. I pray every day, sometimes through tears, for the protection of my family and I battle fear, nightmares of what-if tragedies, and anxiety. But safety is not my highest aim for my children. If it were, I would lock them behind a white picket fence and throw away the key.

I want my children to be brave, engaged, compassionate, aware of the world, open to diversity and challenge. I want them to know that a life working for justice, serving the oppressed or downtrodden, fighting to create beauty requires faith and courage and that these practical goals and these character traits trump the need for personal safety.

I want my family to be safe but I will not promise it. My promise to my kids is that their father and I will do our best to make wise decisions, that we will pray for protection, that we will work toward a safer and more peaceful world, and that no matter what happens, we will walk through the valley of darkness, when it inevitably comes, together.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.



By Lorri Mcdole

FA 06 Cul de Sac ArtWe’d eaten all the salads and burgers and cookies—alone deviled egg sat quivering in a puddle of melted ice—and had run out of things to say to the people who live just around the corner. The annual block party finally over, we smiled and waved as our stranger-neighbors dragged their lawn chairs out of the middle of our cul-de-sac and down to their own.

Then the rest of us pulled our chairs up on the grass, got out the portable fire pit and frozen Margarita buckets, and left our children—three-year-old Haley, five-year-olds Ryan, Alex, and Tanner, and eight-year-olds Alaina and Shayna—to play in the street.

Which isn’t as bad it sounds. One of the reasons we live on a cul-de-sac is to give our kids a relatively safe place to play. Cars don’t speed by on their way to somewhere else because they really can’t get there from here.

But just because our neighborhood is a mecca for little kids doesn’t mean that our kids stay little forever. Once upon a time they cuddled close—for stories, songs, the sound of our voices—but now our children run around wild, tempting fate as if they’re as lucky as cats. They have the knack, mostly, for avoiding bicycle headers and slipping through tight spaces in the nick of time, but they’re also still small enough to be misplaced, run over, grabbed under the arm like a sack of potatoes and made off with.

And the mothers, what of us? We call on God—we pray, cajole, would seduce Him, if we could—but mostly we sit empty-lapped, older by the minute, wives telling tales around the fire.

But some families live on these circular blocks long enough for their kids to grow up and get driver’s licenses. And sometimes—like when the teenaged neighbor is driving home from his job at Safeway and his gaze is diverted by a friendly fire—the illusion of safety is the real danger.

I was playing a board game with my kids on a dark winter night when there was an insistent knock at the door and then a long stuttering ring of the bell. Our cul-de-sac is more like a commune than a collection of single-resident houses, with kids flowing freely through open doors in summer and pounding on doors and bells in winter.

But this time it wasn’t a kid, it was Darcy, the mom next door.

“You haven’t seen three little kids, have you? A third grader— Elizabeth?—and two younger brothers, maybe four and five years old? They went out to the mailbox and never came back.”

I knew which family she was talking about, but they were new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t met them yet.

“When their mom went to check, they were just …gone,” she ended lamely. And then she threw her arm out like an amateur actor, pointing to the top of our cul-de-sac ‘T’.

I ran out to the sidewalk and saw two police cars, the mailbox, and a woman sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth with her head in her hands. One of the police officers walked over to peer in the mailbox, as if one or all of the kids might be hiding in there. I felt like I was watching the Amber Alert play out somewhere far away on the 10 o’clock News.

But here was Darcy, whom I knew too well to ignore, asking me to help her stop the lava-like dread that threatened to wash away our world. Our fingers in the dike, we stood silent, trying to disown the same thought: we’d gotten lucky. Our own children were safe and sound, this time.

We found out what happened the next day. Tired of waiting for their mom to get off the phone and take them to Bingo Night at Sierra Heights Elementary, the three kids had gone out to get the mail just as their dad pulled into the driveway. They were so excited to see him and so upset about missing Bingo Night that he decided to pack them into the car and take off. He called and left a message, the story goes, which his wife somehow didn’t get.

What we, the other mothers, are still dying to ask (but can’t because we still don’t know the family well enough; can’t because the question is stuck in our throats like in a bad dream) is this: Is there life after your children are swept from the face of the earth, even if, by miracle or just everyday magic, they reappear?

When my daughter was three months old, I gushed to my mother about the Diaper Genie, a contraption that seals off disposable diapers in a smell-free container. I’ll never forget the shock on her face, the hurt in her voice.

“You’re using disposable diapers? It used to be my favorite thing, washing and drying and folding all those little white diapers for you!”

Mom smoked during each of her three pregnancies; raised us on starch, sugar, and fat; and allowed us to go to the corner store for candy as soon as we turned six. Every summer morning she sent us out to play with the neighbor kids and counted herself lucky if we didn’t come back till dinnertime.

This was during the 60’s and 70’s, long before anyone worried about spending time (quantity or quality) with their children; before they knew to worry about nutrition or safety. Like my daughter, who’s perplexed by Ms. Hannigan in the movie, Annie (“But she’s an adult, she has to love kids,” Alaina says), everyone assumed that to have children was to love them, and to love them was to do for them. They took it for granted that nothing bad would happen to us when we were “out there,” and mostly they were right.

Today, no matter where we live, our kids seem targeted for terrible things, like they really are accidents waiting to happen. And we, the adults, the used-to-be-young? Shocked at getting older, we skate at the frozen edges of our children’s innocence and often end by falling into the soupy middle.

Like me, reading the mail on my front porch one day and trying not to register how fast and close together all of our kids were riding their scooters and bikes. I make mine wear helmets, but how can I get them, in concert with the other kids, to appreciate a speed-to-proximity ratio that would at least lessen the chance of bloody knees or elbows or worse?

The thud, when it came, was quiet, and I only registered it because of my daughter’s yell: “Mom, Tanner got hit by a car!”

Trailing cell phone, bills, and magazines, I ran down to where our street opens up on the rest of the neighbor- hood and saw a man getting out of a blue pickup, surrounded by our swarming children. Tanner was picking himself up off the street.

Over the next few minutes the man and I, both shaking now that the tragedy had officially morphed into a near miss, reconstructed the scene for each other: he’d been backing out of the driveway that leads to the house behind our neighbor’s, had stopped to look for cars and kids, and then heard the terrible sound once he looked away. Swiveling around, he saw the horrified faces of a bunch of kids and me running wildly at them all. For a brief moment, he forced himself to face the worst—that a child was under his truck.

But luckily he’d been stopped when Tanner, who hadn’t been looking where he was going, barreled into him. Luckily the thud wasn’t something he rolled over.When people ask whether we plan to have more children, I joke that the only person I’d add to our family of four would be someone named Watch This!, whose sole job would be to obey this command from my children each of the 5,000 times it’s uttered in a day. Or a person called Find This!, who would spend all day looking for the one tiny plastic toy needed for some game.

But in the middle of the night, when my real fears and desires loop endlessly through my mind, what I really crave is a guardian angel. Not the garden-variety, God-sent angels of my childhood (whom I credited for keeping me safe even as the Fire and Brimstone Church I grew up in taught me that it was up for grabs whether I would, actually, be saved), but a cut-and-dried 21st century secular angel. A mercenary who’ll keep my kids safe, no matter what God or anyone else has in mind.

Someone who could be there, say, on that late August evening, just past dusk, when five-year-old neighbors Ryan and Alex were thrilled to have the run of the cul-de-sac. It was their favorite thing, doing something nearly “under the law,” as they called playing in the street in the almost-dark.

Their parents, talking around the fire pit to the other moms and dads, were like the soft-focus pictures of Jesus at church: they promised safety, but from a distance.

Their backs to the wind and their ears filled with their own screaming laughter, neither boy knew a car was bearing down on them. But we knew. Tuned as mothers are to these things, we rose halfway off our seats at the just-discernible hum of the car and then sank back down, relieved to see it was just Nick, the responsible, Safeway-employed teenager from next door, who was rounding the corner.

By the time we realized that Nick’s eyes were glued to our fire at the side of the road and that he was nervously stepping on the gas instead of the brake, it was too late for anyone but God, or some kind of angel, to do anything.

What He or She did is this: had us yell, in terrified symphony, “No, No, No!” Had Ryan and Alex suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be under the law or under the ground. Had the boys want, more than anything else, to be ensnared by the flailing arms of their mothers, to be engulfed by the fire-lit ovals of their mouths. Had the boys cross the street hell-bent for leather in an irreproducible sort of geometry, one of them just in front of the car, and the other just behind.

Author’s Note: “Ryan’s on the cliff of the stairs!” my daughter, Alaina, used to yell when she was four and her brother was one. Too many times I’d round the corner just in time to see him rolling, end over end, to the landing. But kids are resilient—he left teeth marks but no teeth in the wall—and most of their scars won’t show until later.

Lorri Mcdole lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, Greg, and their children, Alaina and Ryan. She worked as a technical and marketing writer before having children and has published in Pacific Northwest and Common Ground. This is her first publication since becoming a mother.

Brain, Child (Fall 2006)

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Peanut Butter Stinks

Peanut Butter Stinks

Peanut Butter ArtBy Morgan Baker

I can smell peanut butter a room away. I know where the open dish of nuts is at a party, and it’s not because I’m salivating for the food.

When I gave birth to my oldest daughter, I knew I’d teach her safety tips like how to look both ways before crossing the street, but I didn’t know I’d teach her how to read ingredients on food packages, and to remember her EpiPen (a shot of artificial epinephrine to jump start her system should it shut down) when she left the house.

When Maggie was 11 months old, I slathered peanut butter on some crackers, tossed them on the high chair tray and watched her lick the crackers clean. I left her in the high chair (something mothers are warned not to do) and ran to the bathroom. When I returned, she was unrecognizable. Her face was swollen to twice its size and covered in hives. Her eyes were almost swollen shut and her lips were puffed out.

I poured liquid Benadryl down her throat and called the pediatrician who was at lunch. The answering service recognized the significance of my call because the pediatrician called back and asked, “Is she breathing?”

Maggie, I learned later, is anaphylactic to tree nuts and peanuts. If she eats one by accident her body can shut down. Her blood pressure can drop, her heart rate can slow and her throat can swell up without a shot of epinephrine in the first 15 minutes of a reaction, she could die.

I know this from meeting with doctors, reading lots of literature and watching my husband almost die several times as his allergies continue to change and develop as he ages.

I grew up on peanut butter and Fluff and ate Snickers bars throughout my pregnancy, but when Maggie was diagnosed with these life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, I tossed our half-eaten jar of peanut butter in the trash. We haven’t had another jar in the house in twenty years. My younger daughter doesn’t know what it tastes like.

I spent much of Maggie’s childhood trying to control her environment. She took her own piece of cake when she was invited to birthday parties. We chose her schools partially based on where my husband and I thought she’d be best protected. We avoided those with huge cafeterias and she ended up at a small school where I advocated for her class to be nut-free, for the middle school lunchroom to have a nut-free zone and eventually in high-school for the students to eat on trays to avoid cross-contamination. In one case it took an obituary to motivate the administration to give me what Maggie needed.

But I didn’t just educate her school and friends, I also taught Maggie how to keep herself safe. She doesn’t eat any food if she doesn’t know what the ingredients are. She carries her EpiPen with her at all times – she has a huge collection of purses – and she needs to identify herself in restaurants.

Maggie didn’t always like being singled out, but my zealous behavior has kept her from harm. She has had only two accidents since the original incident.  When she was 13, she ate a congo bar at her grandmother’s memorial service on Martha’s Vineyard thinking I had made it. The caterer had made it – with nuts. A 30-minute ride to the hospital and an EpiPen later, Maggie was fine.

My job as her official advocate, however, ended when she started college. The last call I made on her behalf was to food service at Vassar. On move-in day, two kind administrators showed us around the dining center and explained which food stations would be more, or less, safe for Maggie. They also showed us the Peace of Mind station where Vegans or those who are lactose intolerant, or those who keep Kosher, could find safe food.

I knew letting go of Maggie was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect to choke up in the cafeteria when I saw the individual cream cheese containers for her in the refrigerator.  While everyone else could slap cream cheese and peanut butter on bagels without paying attention to the neighboring open-air containers, Maggie could enjoy one of her favorite foods safely.

As a sophomore, she lived in a teeny-tiny single, which she obtained on her own through The Office of Disability. Now as a junior preparing for senior housing, she’s discovering not everyone can or wants to live without peanut butter. Vegetarians rely on it as a source of protein, and others depend on it for easy meals, but she’s navigating this journey with her friends, not me.

As she departs for a semester abroad, I try not to think about how she’ll communicate her allergies in a foreign language away from home.

I’m not with her all the time anymore, but when I smell peanut butter or see nuts, I catch my breath and think of Maggie.  I keep my fingers permanently crossed and hope I’ve been aggressive and proactive enough, that she’ll continue to take care of herself the way I would take care of her.