The No EXCUSES Parent

The “No Excuses” Parent

on Oct 7, 12 • by • with Comments

By writing an article entitled “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher” recently, I unwittingly unleashed a torrent of competing emotions. With 81,000 Facebook “likes” and scores of supportive comments from teachers and their loved ones, the text and tenor of the piece found a receptive audience. At the same...
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The No EXCUSES ParentBy writing an article entitled “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher” recently, I unwittingly unleashed a torrent of competing emotions. With 81,000 Facebook “likes” and scores of supportive comments from teachers and their loved ones, the text and tenor of the piece found a receptive audience. At the same time, several of the comments—from both teachers and non-teachers—expressed dismay that I had the audacity to declare that adults, and not just teachers, are to blame for the condition of today’s American youth.

I was taken to task for playing “the blame game” and “blaming parents” because my essay made some unvarnished observations. To be sure, I didn’t merely vilify bad parents; I also condemned ministers who molest children, CEOs who avoid paying their taxes, and celebrities who peddle rotten values messages. Anyone who hurts children, really.

 

Read Part I, “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher” here.

Are there parents who hurt their children? As a person who has made that phone call to Child Protective Services, let me assure you that they are out there. In fact, the article in question was written the day after an episode at my school that I can’t really get into. If I could, you’d understand the fire in the essay.

I must confess my confusion: as a public school educator who pays attention to the commentaries of Michelle Rhee, reads reviews of movies like Waiting for ‘Superman’ and Won’t Back Down, and reads articles like this one, I became convinced some time ago that we are indeed playing a high-stakes version of the blame game.

And teachers are losing.

Bad teachers are America’s plague. But don’t ask me, ask the United States government. Our leaders will tell you that the future survival of the nation is in question because of them. A Nation at Risk noted in 1983 that “…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people…” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations gave that sentiment another push on the public consciousness merry-go-round by declaring that “Educational failure puts the United States’…physical safety at risk.”

We’re all going to die. Thanks a lot, teachers.

We in the US are blaming teachers pathologically at this point, and not just for too many kids taking remedial courses in college. We are actually blaming them for the eventual downfall of the United States of America. That’s heavy stuff.

Meanwhile, not a peep is heard about parents’ or communities’ roles in forming kids. It’s not even okay to think the things I wrote. We are a nation of sheep when it comes to demanding a holistically sound, safe, and supportive environment for kids.

We are only child-centered at school, and that’s not good enough.

“No excuses” apparently stops at the school house exit and “all excuses” reigns outside. But this is true only among the pundits, in actuality. As a parent and the friend of other parents, I can report that the ones who take the job of parenting seriously are cognizant of and, in their private conversations at least, often critical of ineffective parents.

As a society, we need to do a better job of celebrating and encouraging our “no excuses” parents. We don’t do that by pretending—out of courtesy—that all parents are doing a hunky-dory job.

People believe that perceived flaws in the condition of the American youth are “the teachers’ fault” principally because teachers rarely challenge that narrative. Such an acquiescence to blame leads to a public misconception about the power of teachers to easily overcome terrible home situations; it also encourages a willingness among some parents to punt on parenting and leave character education, education about hygiene, efforts against obesity and drug use and date rape and any number of other traditional parental responsibilities entirely in the laps of people who only see the children for 180 days a year, typically in large groups, and who never sit down for a meal with them.

In my little piece about exhaustion, I merely slipped the painful shoe of accountability on the other foot. And some folks really, really didn’t like it.

Okay, I said. If we’re going to blame one another, let’s blame one another.

Are there bad teachers? Of course. Now, are there bad parents?

Do bad teachers negatively impact the educational outcomes of their students? Certainly.

Do bad parents?

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, has written about the non-cognitive aspects of a child’s success. He has written about the failure of wealthy parents to let their children develop “grit” by being allowed to fail, and he has written about poor children failing to develop a sense of optimism by having opportunities to succeed. Essentially, he is putting into the language of scholarship some age-old and common sense advice: don’t spoil your children, and don’t exasperate them either.

He speaks of children who pass through a “wildly inefficient” and costly system of support programs meant to help the very poor, including “social-service and child welfare offices and hospital emergency rooms,” “special education, remedial classes, and alternative schools,” “GED programs and computer-assisted credit-recovery courses,” and “foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and probation officers.” Tough goes against the flow of conventional wisdom and notes that “reformers prefer to locate the main obstacles to success within the school system, and they take it as an article of faith that the solutions to those obstacles can be found in the classroom as well” because blaming the home can be uncomfortable.

He’s right; this kind of talk touches a nerve among people who don’t wish to offend. If you don’t believe me, go read the comments following the article.

As a person who has heard “teachers are the problem” ad nauseum, I will not now say “parents are the problem.” Many, many parents are wonderful; but not all. I can’t endorse the implied notion that “parents are never the problem” because I’ve seen too much. And if parents are sometimes the problem, then we as a society should do something about that. Shouldn’t we?

Can we at least talk about it?

As I said in the exhaustion piece, the problem with the American child is the American adult. That doesn’t mean it’s always the parent, but it does mean that it can’t always be the teacher.

For every really thoroughly neglected child I have known in school, I have known dozens whose parents did an outstanding job of loving on them and raising them into strong, happy, confident young people. But just as good teachers should (and do) want bad teachers run out of the profession, it should not offend any of America’s outstanding parents to hear an explicit acknowledgement of the damage caused by ineffective ones. And I sincerely doubt it surprises conscientious parents to learn that some of their neighbors aren’t pulling their weight at home.

One day several years ago, a grandmotherly lady knocked on the door of the portable building where I taught my class. She was holding the tiny hand of a toddler.

“I found him walking down the highway,” she said. “Cars were zipping by. I didn’t know what to do so I brought him to you.”

I called the office and we figured out who this child was. He belonged to the mother of two of my students. Another teacher and I loaded him up and drove him home, but no one was there. I peeked through the windows to see if maybe mom was asleep inside. Fifteen years later I can still close my eyes and see the squalor. It was mostly newspapers and old food strewn all over the floor of the decrepit trailer house; I don’t remember any furniture in the living room. This lady and her four children were part of America’s population of the desperately poor.

That little boy is probably seventeen or eighteen now. I hope he’s okay. His older sister got pregnant by a much older man, dropped out of school and moved away. His oldest brother died before he reached adulthood. His other brother suffered a devastating physical calamity and will be handicapped for the rest of his life.

The tragic outcomes for this family are real and painful. They are devastating for that mother and costly for our society. I am not blaming the mom for her poverty; she’s doing the best she can. But so are the teachers of her children. I refuse to parrot the silly season philosophy that the school or any teacher will be to blame if none of her children end up college-ready.

Could the school have done more for this family? Of course. Maybe we should march out the two dozen teachers who worked there in those days and burn them at the stake for not saving those kids from their fate. We could tell them, just before we strike the match, not to use the fact that they were never trained as social workers as an excuse, that even though their expertise was in elementary music education or secondary biology they should still—as humans—have stayed late and scoured the internet to find social service organizations to help that family. They could have called Child Protective Services. (They did.) They could have taken mom into their homes and bought her a nice dress for interviews and helped her learn skills needed to obtain and hold down a good job; I mean, of course, after they prepared supper, did the laundry, got homework done,  bathed their kids and tucked them into bed. At the very least, they could have taken up a collection and dropped off Christmas presents anonymously on the rickety porch of that house—oh wait, they did that. Well, still—they could’ve done more.

But that family’s neighbors could have also done more, right?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. In my view, when teachers start aggressively playing the blame game along with their dogged critics, the game will change. When the punching bag starts hitting back, the punching may stop.

A “unified theory of accountability”—what I have called shared accountability and contextual accountability in other articles—would apply leverage to more than just teachers and schools: those children’s parents and the politicians who designed the systems that purport to help desperate mothers like this should be encouraged to take ownership of and responsibility for the effectiveness of their roles. If data-driven accountability is the leverage used to get schools to do more, what is the leverage our society exerts on parents who coddle or neglect their kids, or on voters who should vote out ineffective elected officials who don’t lift families out of the poverty that makes good parenting so much harder to pull off, which in turn inhibits learning, which in turn lengthens and strengthens the chain of generational poverty?

Am I missing something, or is the answer “Nothing”?

When it comes to the education of a child, the teacher is indeed the quarterback, and there is nothing wrong with demanding a positive quarterback rating. But by fixating on the quantification of the teachers, we have forgotten that there is another side of the scoreboard. If the teacher is the quarterback, then the parent is the middle linebacker tasked with defending the child’s heart from all sorts of threats. It doesn’t do much good to insist that the teacher throw touchdown pass after touchdown pass if the middle linebacker is letting the other team run up the score every time the teacher steps off the field.

The absolution of the American parent does precisely nothing to help the American child; if anything, it irrigates the orchard of neglect.

We hear often how three teachers in a row can close the achievement gap, and it’s interesting and telling how this kind of education speculation pretends that those three great teachers operate in a vacuum. I wonder: does it take more than three great teachers if the mother is addicted to meth-amphetamines? Does it take five great teachers in a row in that case? Seven, perhaps? Why do social scientists ignore obviously-important variables in their pseudo-formulas?

How many great parents in a row does it take to close the achievement gap?

Is anyone even asking that?

In broaching this tough subject—the value of serious, “no excuses” parenting—I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. I am a parent, and I know how hard the job is. But I also know how important it is.

We can and should establish a more professional teaching corps. Doing so will make a great difference in the outcomes of our children. But why are we stopping there? If we are going to help children, let’s help children. Let’s not go halfway.

Quality schools are good. Quality homes are better. Quality both is the recipe for a brighter American future.

If you enjoyed reading this article by John Kuhn, don’t forget to register for our annual conference where he will be the Keynote Speaker! 

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Comments

  1. Tara says:

    WOW! I have been teaching for 14 years now and I love my job but you have hit the nail on the head. Great article! I am standing up and cheering right now!

  2. Cindy says:

    Thank you for this well spoken article. During the political rhetoric regarding education we can be sure this angle will not come up.

  3. jan says:

    32 years…well said!

  4. CAC says:

    Fantastic post! Thank you!

  5. PS :) says:

    THANK YOU! I so hope that more superintendents will follow your GREAT LEADERSHIP and more ADULTS will listen to what you say and start doing what they should!

  6. Tenille says:

    Brene Brown says, blame is how we discharge our pain and discomfort. I think she would praise you for daring greatly and stepping into the arena. I applaud you for engaging us in discourse, and as a public school teacher, I thank you for bringing light to such a challenging topic. Neither parents or teachers want to be told, “You are not enough.” However, if the gap between our aspirational values and practiced values continues to widen, I do worry about the future of public education.

  7. Susan says:

    Actually, you made me cry. I want to cheer, but it's already been too hard a fall. Thank you for writing this. Now how do we get the right people to read and believe it?

  8. Amy says:

    Twenty years in the classroom and I have never disliked my job as much as this year. Retirement is definitely something I will consider at the end of this school year. Thank you for being a voice of reason among those that overpower us. The loving, caring, well educated, and good-intentioned classroom teacher is a vanishing breed.

  9. Awesome! You hit the nail on the head – it's a community problem and we all need to step up together. Wait, no, we all need to *learn how to do things together* – become communities again … then we can step up to it!

  10. glen brown says:

    Teachers do not work with “quantifiable outcomes.” Perhaps we need legislation for our students’ parents instead: streamline dismissal hearings for ineffectual parenting, an independent fact-finding panel for impasses, an evaluative process based largely on how well children are doing in school and everywhere else…
    http://teacherpoetmusicianglenbrown.blogspot.com/

  11. Ann says:

    Thank you so much. You have put into words everything I have been thinking. I applaud you for your braveness in talking about the deterioration of families and the effect on kids.

  12. Karen says:

    I can't tell you how happy I am to have found your blog. Your posts express exactly what I have been thinking since I started teaching- where is the parent/ student responsibility in education? This is only my second year teaching, and I was really wondering if I made the wrong career choice due to teachers being so vilified. Knowing I am not alone in my thinking encourages me to continue and to fight against the idea that the problems in education can all be blamed on the teachers.

  13. Steven E. Swenson says:

    I am not a teacher, and I agree that there is a serious misunderstanding, and or lack of ownership and lacking when it comes to the parents assuming responsability for what they've created.
    I am a parent of 4 and grandfather of seven with one on the way… love em to pieces and want to see them become good citizens with caring and loving hearts.. and grow into adults with good values and an energy for all that life and opportunity presents to them. Since education is synominous with growing .. it is crucial that we the people place the priority on encouraging teachers and strive to retaining excellants in the teaching profession. What happended to parents that held there kids accountable, and if you had trouble at school, you were in double trouble when getting home.
    Please don't take too personal, it is the said state of much of our country things have changed.
    I can only say … that eventually, this too will pass. Some of us do care, do admire and do respect you.

  14. Corey says:

    Every obstacle presents an opportunity to prove and improve our worth. The problem is the obstacles keep piling up, and we're exhausted. Voices of reason like yours, Mr. Kuhn, resonate with the rational minds of America. And your words inspire your teammates — fellow educators — to carry on with our heads held high. Keep it up.

  15. Petrina says:

    I enjoyed both articles very much. If anyone cares to do the research, one can peruse the data and note that countries such as Switzerland enjoy a successful education system in part because of good parenting and faith in their teachers. I suggest using a data base to research Switzerland's model; however, anyone can google Switzerland and education and find interesting information. The article linked below makes a salient point concerning American parents' tendency to hinder their children's emotional growth and accountability. I'd also like to add that it is depressing to consider that we live in a country where reality TV show "stars" can become rich off of their vulgarity, are encouraged to blog and share their thoughts with the world, and are asked to speak at college graduations, while a teacher cannot even practice her freedom of speech and intelligently and logically analyze the conditions of our education system and society. I do believe our forefathers are continuously rolling in their graves.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-57455011/w

  16. Leslie says:

    I am entering my 16th year as a teacher and this year has been the worst (and its only October!). My colleagues and I have become so jaded. For us, this we started this career with love and excitement. It was fun to get up and go to work every day! However the tables have turned and many of us are wondering what else we could do for a career that would make us happy. I can't believe how the respect for this position as teacher has taken a nose dive. I can only hope Steven Swenson is right and "this too shall pass." I am a parent as well, so I do see both sides and I know there are "bad seeds" out there. But there are bad seeds in every occupation and parents need to know that. Parents also need to know that their kids need 3 square meals a day, 8 – 10 hours of quality sleep, time to PLAY with their FRIENDS (not on the computer or video games). Many parents need to step up to the plate and do just that – PARENT. Thank you for this article. Thank you for advocating. I'm printing it out and putting it on the fridge in the teachers room. Many of my colleagues will appreciate it!

  17. George Ross says:

    I've been teaching for 21 years and I could not have said it better. Everybody in America should be required to read and analyze this article. It contains the truths that the problem with education is bigger and in more trouble than we know. "Blaming everyone" is the answer; that way no one can point the finger! Keep this kinds of articles coming. Maybe it will "wake up' a lot ot people.

  18. ms_teacher says:

    I think it is telling that there are so few responses to this article. It is easy to bash on teachers, easy scapegoats & hey, everyone is doing it. Not so easy or comfortable to hold parents accountable or the politicians that choose to ignore the impact of poverty.

  19. r_grabowski says:

    In answer to your question about how many great parents it takes to close a child's achievement gap, I would say one. I know this to be true because I did it. Parents need to take more responsibility for their children's education.

  20. Matt Chalmers says:

    This is my 40th year in public education in Texas, 28 as a teacher/coach and the rest as a principal. I have maintained throughout those years that education is like a three legged stool–the student, the parents and the school. If any leg is weak then it will be difficult to educate the child. This article is exactly how I feel about the parents being left out of the equation. I have fired a few teachers in my day and helped run off a couple more, but there is not enough space here to tell the stories of parental neglect I have seen. Keep spreading the message Mr. Kuhn, I support you 100%.

  21. Joel says:

    Thank you for this clarion “call to task” for all teachers, parents, and adults who shape our children’s lives. We need to send this to every CEO, Congressman/woman, governor, etc- and the White House.

  22. Ellen says:

    34 years of teaching. Bingo! This article nailed it! "It takes a village to raise a child."

  23. Hanim Khalib says:

    Love the article. My country is moving to a child centred education system. Many teachers are sceptical. People tend to blame everything on the teachers, to raise a wonderful generation does not solely depend on teachers. Parents should be responsible and having a positively nosy community is much better than having a could not care less one.

  24. Sue says:

    While reading both articles, I felt like you took the words right out of my mouth!! I have been saying this for years! And now, our schools are being graded (with threat of closure) and our salaries will soon be based on the scores (of a yet unnamed assessment) that each of these students must pass. All I want to do is teach my firsties to read! But when some are worried about who will be home when they arrive, will there be any supper…. or breakfast, or will the chaos stop long enough to allow sleep…how do I ask them to focus long enough to learn? Just last week, a bright, yet unkempt seven-year-old commented to me, "I wish we didn't have Christmas break." I knew things weren't good in the home, but I did not expect this type of wish. DHS has been involved many times, law enforcement makes frequent visits, and the children are still in the home. Just like the family in your article…. could or should I have done more? I gave the student a hug and a post-it with my cellphone number. I told him that I would be there in a heartbeat. I have worried about him since that day. So how do we make parents accountable? The talk doesn't seem to be doing any good….. We must band together and "start punching back" if we want results!!

  25. Dave G says:

    You know, if you ever decided teaching wasn't your thing any more, you could DEFINITELY find work as a writer. A+.

  26. Nancy says:

    I applaud the author, and want to add that private schools are filled with spoiled children who are suffering from a different kind of neglect that stems from hyper achieving parents who are too tired and distracted to let their 3-year old help them wash the lettuce or learn to put away their own toys. They also have so many digital toys at home that they come to school with academic skills, but can't relate to other children. As a teacher AND a parent, AND a daughter, sister, wife and friend, I agree there is PLENTY of blame to go around, and until EVERYONE agrees to swallow their pride and accept responsibility, the teachers will always be stuck with the heart-wrenching, exhausting and sometimes impossible task of helping these children cope, learn and grow. Thank you, Mr. Kuhn.

  27. Karen says:

    Well said. As a teacher and a parent, I’d like to see this conversation go past blame towards attempts at solutions. Obviously there are national discussions about this, but what can we do on the smaller scale in the here and now? I’ve seen a couple of good ideas recently: (1) An independent school in my neighborhood requires 60 hours / year of volunteer time from parents. This time can be spent helping in the library, with computers, carpentry, traffic control, after-school tutoring, garden work, etc. This is intended for parents to be actively engaged in the education process. (2) the same school sets up “peer families” for the children, composed of 4-5 kids of different ages and classes. “Family time” happens once per week and students get together to read, work on projects, or do community clean-up. (3) A school in my current neighborhood offers state-sponsored “parenting classes.” Obviously, these are small-scale ideas and not going to solve all problems, and the same ideas won’t work in all situations. But they do help to convey the message that responsibility rests on all of us as a community to raise and set examples for our children.

  28. Susan says:

    Only 5 years teaching and the lack of parental support has been unbelievable. We all need to be accountable for the growth of our children. I know that I certainly cannot do it alone! I work harder and harder each day, but it feels like a losing battle. I am honestly considering a career change because the problem is so large and complex that it seems to be out of anyone's hands. Thank you for a very honest and forthright article.

  29. Teresa says:

    I came home on Friday, exhausted after a week of teaching kindergarten only to get an email from a concerned dad that was worried that I was taking all the fun out of his son’s learning experience because of the “bad” notes he would get occasionally because of his behavior. He can’t understand how his child could possibly be disruptive when he is a perfect angel every where else? He wants to meet so we can discuss how to make (I CAN MAKE) his kindergarten year more fun, leaving a happy lasting memory. Need I write more…

    1. BlueCornMoon says:

      38 years here & I AM RETIRING JUNE 30 !! Bad year for me, too. Everything in this article rings true. I paraphrase the African proverb : “It takes a village to raise AND EDUCATE a child.” Too much political wrangling, “school reformers” & “experts” who’ve never taught a day & know zilch about education, the shut down of a lot of schools, demanding future teacher pay cuts, talks about eliminating the arts, librarians, counselors, sports, support programs for at risk kids, etc due to lack of funds. I’m in the arts department & my program has already been cut back severely & may be eliminated in even more schools. There are too many behavior problems & ineffective parents. Huge numbers of teachers are,like myself,retiring if they can afford to. Fourteen may be leaving my school. I come from a family that produced numerous educators. Teachers & education were highly valued in my neighborhood & all neighbors were free to scold any kid they saw misbehaving. Adults were in charge & knew their jobs when it came to parenting. Peaceful safe neighborhood & school was fun. We had May Day celebrations,a big school show involving parents, teachers,& community every year, Halloween parties & costume making,Easter egg hunts, Christmas parties & card making,Thanksgiving celebrations,etc .Few standard tests were given. Educators ran schools & teachers made their own tests. If you failed you got bad grades or left down. Fast forward to today: No more May Day,Easter egg hunts & Halloween are “politically incorrect”,with Halloween being “the devil’s birthday” ( no such thing!) Christmas only about Santa,snowmen & Reindeer. Not saying teach religion but at least TEACH THE ORIGINS of the holidays! We learned them in school ! Some parents who wail about Halloween being a bad influence don’t give a hoot about their kids talking back to & assaulting teachers & classmates. Now kids are tested to death every few weeks, the big shows are gone because “gotta get ready for the next test”, parental involvement is way down, music & art programs are being cut , & parents demand that teachers change grades, & threaten to press charges against teachers who put their kids in time out or punish them for bad behavior. All due to the “experts” that run education & the pop culture ‘s “get something for nothing” attitude. Many teachers say school isn’t fun anymore. It isn’t . So I’m leaving . It might just take a mass exodus of teachers & a resulting teacher shortage to wake this country up. I’ve already known a lot of young teachers who are planning to quit teaching as soon as they can, have already quit, or who changed their majors (away from education) in college once they started talking to current teachers.

  30. Holly says:

    Brilliant!! I love that you mentioned that we as teachers are also busy parents. I work exceptionally hard for my students, but I have three young children of my own at home too and it is wrong for me to spend so much time working that I do not give my own kids what they deserve. Sometimes I wonder if people outside of the profession even remember that we are human beings too!

  31. Anthony says:

    LOL Parents are a huge part of the problem with education. Not all parents, of course…but a large percent of them. As a (former) high school science teacher (“retired” due to exhaustion), it was obvious that a vast majority of my students (in a well-to-do area) had parents who either constantly made excuses for their kids OR were just hands-off when it came to education. I had one parent tell me that her kid deserved to pass because “he’s a good kid,” as if grades are determined by personality. This “good kid” was one of the laziest (academically) I’ve ever had. She should’ve kicked his butt into gear instead of wasting the teacher’s time. On top of all of the excuses made for kids by parents (and the educational system), we have significant percentages of kids showing up to school daily without adequate sleep, without breakfast (nutrition is IMPORTANT!), without their completed homework, without having any down time the day before (many students today are involved in so many extracurricular activities that they have no free time), etc. Study skills are virtually non-existent for a large percentage of students…at least in Texas, where kids are afforded a retake on all failed tests (another excuse). My wife is from a 3rd world country halfway around the world, and her classrooms were very traditional…and the parents were very supportive of the teachers, and saw value in education. When she came to the US for college, she aced her courses…despite some language barriers. I once had a legally BLIND student who had to use a special magnifying glass to see already-enlarged text. She was one of the hardest-working students I ever had, and she outperformed nearly every other student. She never made excuses, nor did her parents. I’m so tired of administrators saying “students learn differently today.” No, no they don’t. The difference is that kids and parents today have an entitlement attitude. Sorry kids, but the VAST majority of you can’t sit in a chemistry class, not pay attention, not complete your work, and get a good grade (which is a reflection of your mastery of your concepts). You have to read, you have to study, you have to REPEAT problem-solving steps repeatedly to get it to STICK. Excuses won’t help now, and they especially won’t help in college.

    1. BlueCornMoon says:

      Jeepers ! I hear these same stories from folks all over. That sense of “you can’t touch me” entitlement from kids. I’ve been at schools where a kid assaulted a principal & dislocated a finger, a parent attacked a principal, & a 7th grade boy attacked a school police officer. A local high school & middle school regularly have cops take kids out in cuffs for fighting,drugs,etc. Parents, of course,defend their kids to the hilt & insist that the adult did something to “set the kid off”. Yes,they did. They asked for homework, demanded that kids follow school rules, and demanded that the kid stay in their seat in class. CHILD ABUSE !!!

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