It took courage and a sense of duty for the Vermont high school nurse to call out a school board member who went on a tirade after the member’s son violated COVID quarantine rules. As a consequence of the student and family blatantly ignoring COVID travel guidelines, the high school student could not sit for the SATs because he was not allowed in the school building. The father became enraged and belligerent at the ruling and threatened bodily harm and loss of jobs to school employees.
It was the school nurse, Rebecca Stockwell, who spoke out at the school board meeting about the impact of the harassment and threatening language by the father who is also a school board member. She demanded his resignation and aptly stated:
“They have no place in Vermont schools,” Stockwell said, via Zoom, referring to Terry’s actions. “Some of them felt unsafe,” she said, referring to “violence in schools” in recent years. She said she felt it was her duty as the school nurse to speak up.
She said that Terry was “belligerent and threatening people,” and said, “’I’ll have all your jobs,’” and “’I’m going to hang you!’”
She said it was the second time this year that Terry had threatened staff, since he had directly sent a threatening email to the nursing staff, rather than take his concerns to the school administration.
I wish I could say this was the first time I have heard about school nurses being bullied and harassed as a result of implementing COVID mitigation strategies, but it is not. It is, however, the first time I have read about school nurses taking bold action to call out unacceptable behaviors.
Since October, I have held twice weekly school nurse support groups and many discussions have featured disrespectful, rude, and sometimes angry responses by parents whose child is either symptomatic or has had exposure. Often, these calls end with parents hanging up on the school nurse. School nurses have been directed by parents to “never call” them again. The extreme example of abusive actions was the parent who created a vile tee-shirt for her child to wear to school the day they returned from quarantine that read “My nurse has sh*t for brains, I don’t have COVID.”
Power and privilege have overshadowed civility for far too long. Keeping students and staff safe has been sitting squarely on the shoulders of school nurses across the country during the pandemic. While our shoulders are broad, the burden is heavy and becomes impossible when we are continuously challenged, or worse, threatened. There are long-lasting repercussions for these kinds of toxic interactions. Most notably, school nurses are leaving the field they love, some are retiring early and others are abruptly resigning.
The overarching message is that we are all exhausted from living through a pandemic for more than a year. There are difficult decisions that have been made that may individually impact a small group of students to keep the larger student body safe. Guidelines and protocols are based on current science and given the novel virus, with no roadmap, there are times that policies change as research is updated. It is taxing all of our patience. Student and school safety must remain top of mind, which depends on cooperation and collaboration from parents and caregivers. We are on the same team.