Parents of a student at the Montessori School of Columbia are upset by a comment about suicide a teacher made to their daughter and the school's subsequent response.
The 8-year-old girl's mother, Shandi Wallace, said her daughter recently told one of her teachers that she had an earache. The teacher's response, she said, was "Commit suicide, then it won't hurt."
"I don't know why he'd tell me to do that," her daughter told her, Wallace said. "My initial reaction was, 'This can't be real. There's no way a teacher would say that.'"
At least two other students who had been in the classroom confirmed that the teacher had made the comment about suicide in response to the girl's complaint about her earache, Wallace said. "A couple of these kids didn't even know what suicide is," she said.
After speaking in person with school leaders and asking them to look into what had happened, Wallace received a follow-up email from the head of the school, Karen Kuse.
In the email, Kuse said she had met with the teacher and "explained how incredibly inappropriate and insensitive using the word 'suicide' is with this age group, even when joking. He agreed that he used poor judgment."
Kuse asked Wallace whether she would like for her daughter to skip that particular teacher's class for the remainder of the school year.
To Wallace, that response "was not an adequate match to the action. It wasn't enough to just tell him that's in poor judgment, because someone who can say that to a child obviously has poor judgment. ... He should be either educated differently or reprimanded differently."
In a statement emailed to The State on Thursday afternoon, Kuse said the teacher has been told to "remain home until further notice." The statement was sent after The State talked to Wallace.
"We deeply regret the comment made by a teacher to one of our students," Kuse said. "Though the teacher said he was joking, the comment was wrong, thoughtless, and contrary to the values we teach. ...
"We have apologized to the three students who heard the comment and told them we are sorry this happened and how inappropriate the comment was. Our students and families are why this nonprofit school exists and why we have been operating for more than 30 years. We care about our students, and we would never want any of them to harm themselves."
Wallace said she would have appreciated "this sort of empathetic outreach" as an initial response to the family's concerns, rather than days later. As for the school's decision Thursday to instruct the teacher to stay home, Wallace said, "This action after the fact, it really doesn't resonate well with me."
Ideally, Wallace said, she'd hope to see the teacher receive some sort of training on sensitivity and mental illness. "Children do commit suicide," she said, "so I think he needs to be better educated."
The Montessori School is a private school that focuses on teaching through self-directed and hands-on activities, emphasizing creativity in learning. Several other schools in the Columbia area also offer Montessori-style teaching.
"I didn't want to wreck the community and family we've built" at the school, she said. "I wanted people to know what we had to deal with in speaking up for our daughter's mental safety. Nobody should be in a classroom setting telling a child to commit suicide, in any kind of dark humor."