Becky and Peter Hanrahan’s 11-year-old daughter showed her mom a text exchange with a group of classmates at Ste. Genevieve du Bois School, a Catholic school in Warson Woods.
“She was proud of herself,” Becky remembers.
It was October, a couple of weeks before Halloween. Becky’s daughter, who likes horror films and is anxious and shy, had stood up for herself when some other children were making fun of her for playing with Watchover Voodoo Dolls, a gift from a recent trip to New Orleans.
But when Becky saw the texts, she knew her daughter had gone too far. “Never mess with me,” she wrote. “Watch out for tomorrow.” One text referenced a “kill shot.”
“I told her she couldn’t say those things,” Becky said.
It’s one of those areas in which parents in the age of texting and TikTok and social media struggle to find the right balance between letting kids learn for themselves and protecting them from making a big mistake. Many of us have dreaded that call or email from school letting us know our child was involved in some sort of communication with friends, where something was said that went too far, where a child pushed an envelope, and had to pay a price or learn a lesson.
The Hanrahans’ daughter’s mistake had big repercussions. A parent who thought their child was threatened took some of the texts to the school principal, Nicole Vonder Haar, and its pastor, Monsignor Daniel E. Mosley. The 11-year-old girl was immediately suspended. A Warson Woods police officer came to the Hanrahans’ home to speak with the girl and examine the texts. The police officer recognized there was no real threat.
The Hanrahans agreed to have their daughter have a psychological exam, which she passed.
Then came the shocking news. She was expelled.
“She’s never been in trouble a day in her life. To go from that to expulsion is astounding,” Becky says. “To cast out this child and change the direction of her life based on a bad interpretation of a text exchange … it’s just crazy.”
The Hanrahans then decided to take a look at the entire text chain between the children, more than 150 pages worth. There were pictures of guns and semi-automatic weapons posted. There were Tik Tok videos that made sexual assault references. There was racist and other offensive language.
Becky sent a copy of it to the school board, and asked the board members to “recognize the injustice” of her daughter being singled out with such a severe punishment.
On the day I visited the Hanrahans, their daughters — they also have a third grader — had been out of school for about three weeks. They made inquiries about other private schools, but without the endorsement of the previous principal, that was a fool’s errand. The expulsion changed every plan they had for their daughters, who are now in a local public school.
Eventually the Hanrahans called the Archdiocese of St. Louis for some help, and it worked, to a degree. In early November, they received a letter from the school indicating that their daughter’s “withdrawal” from the school was “voluntary,” seemingly clearing the expulsion from her record.
Archdiocese spokesman Peter Frangie said he could not address a specific child’s case, but that this sort of issue was one that Catholic schools in St. Louis were prepared to handle.
“While the archdiocese cannot comment on any one matter or individual occurrence involving our students, I can share with you that all of our pastors and principals have guidelines to support them in these matters,” Frangie said. “This includes matters regarding social media posts, texting and other electronic mediums for communication that deal with issues of violence, sex, health, etc. The safety and security of our school communities is a top priority, so any decisions that are made by leadership at one of our schools involving these matters also comes with the consultation of local authorities, medical professionals and general counsel.”
Perhaps, in this case, the consultation came a bit too late to achieve a more reasonable conclusion.
Indeed, the school’s action, like the 11-year-old girl’s text, is one that, after its immediate impact, could not really be undone. Voluntary or not, the Hanrahans’ daughters were not going to end up back at their chosen school after such a swift and uncaring dismissal.
After the Hanrahans’ 11-year-old daughter stood up for herself, and before she got in trouble at school for what she texted, she went back to the text string . “I was joking around,” she wrote. “Sorry for scaring you guys.” If there’s a lesson in this morality play, it’s the one offered by a child. She said she was sorry. Will the adults follow her lead?