A bomb threat at my son’s Lawrence school shattered an afternoon into emotional fragments

January 30, 2023 3:33 am
Students walk on a school campus.

Parents like to believe they can protect their children, writes Clay Wirestone. But unexpected events at school challenge that understanding. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

On 11:22 Thursday morning, I received a call from the Lawrence Unified School District.

Hearing about a bomb threat at your child’s middle school has a way of fixing a precise time in your mind.

The message, recorded by district communications director Julie Boyle, was admirably direct and concise. The school had learned of a possible bomb threat and had decided to evacuate the school as a precaution. The students would all be bused to a nearby high school as law enforcement officials conducted a search. Twenty minutes later, another recorded call assured us that all students had been safely moved.

My son doesn’t like folks to know if he’s upset or stressed out. I, however, have no such compunctions. I was both. The afternoon dragged by minute to minute until he returned home safe.

Once the ordeal had ended — the students spent about an hour in the high school gym and were then bused back to the middle school — he asked me probing questions. He didn’t sound traumatized exactly, but he wanted to know what had happened and why.

Why would someone do that? Was there really a bomb? Were you worried?

Parents answer these questions as best they can. For the record, I didn’t seriously fear a bomb was about to rip through the halls of a Lawrence middle school. I didn’t believe that a sixth, seventh or eighth grader was caught making a serious threat. One can only speculate about motives, but law enforcement officials and school staff will do their best to untangle the situation.

I was worried, though. I was worried because, in those lengthy Thursday afternoon minutes, I had lost the ability to protect my child.

My husband and I adopted our son as a newborn. We were entrusted with someone precious. I felt that keenly, from the instant he was born nearly 12 years ago. We do our best every day to make sure he’s safe, fed, educated, entertained and loved. He has his own ideas about how to define those terms (his version of fed includes far more chicken fingers), but I think he’d agree on the job description.

On that Thursday afternoon, I couldn't guarantee his safety. He was in someone else's hands, in a rapidly evolving situation.

– Clay Wirestone

On that Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t guarantee his safety. He was in someone else’s hands, in a rapidly evolving situation. Boyle’s messages said to wait, so I waited.

Too many people forget that children don’t walk among us as a separate species. They literally are us, just younger. They may have ingested less information (although in this online age that may be debatable), but they understand much about the world around them. These middle schoolers could ascertain their situation: Something had gone wrong.

They understood. My son understood that I wasn’t there to protect him.

He asked, afterward, why I hadn’t driven by to pick him up at the high school. Other students’ parents had apparently come by, ignoring administrators’ requests to keep their distance.

“I was trying to follow the rules,” I told him. Because that’s what makes everyone safer in the end, right?

I had driven by the high school, of course. That’s the benefit of neighborhood schools. I could drive by the middle school and the high school, watch as the long yellow buses carried hundreds of preteens and teens from one location to another. My car traced its path, down Iowa Street and turning onto 19th, stopping and pausing, making way for other vehicles, navigating among masses of humanity unaware of this neighborhood drama.

You can’t keep children safe forever, of course. They don’t want it. Reasonable parents don’t want it.

But that Thursday in Lawrence I didn’t expect the lesson so quickly, so brutally, so in my face. And at least today, I have no broader lesson to share, no political point to make. Sometimes events on their own suffice, without added metaphor or imagined societal impact. I could try. No doubt some paragraphs about Ukrainian parents and children would fit, as would broader societal concerns about violence and education funding. But not today.

When I finally turned up at the middle school for early pickup, at the administrator-approved time of 2 p.m., I waited and watched as a teacher went to retrieve my son. I saw him through the glass, heading toward me, wearing his winter coat and looking mildly cross.

At that moment, I wanted to embrace him and reassure him that nothing would ever go wrong. Not ever.

For the moment, it felt true.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.