Monday, June 7, 2010

Kyron Horman's Disappearance is a Nightmare for Everyone

On Friday morning, 7-year-old Kyron Horman attended his school science fair in Portland, Oregon with his step-mother.  At 8:45 AM, he walked down the hall at Skyline Elementary School, towards his 2nd grade classroom.  He has not been seen since.  Just before 4 PM, when Kyron didn't get off the bus at home, his step-mother called the school and learned he had never been in class.

The disappearance of a child is every parent's nightmare.  Most of us know that instinctively.  This particular scenario, however, is also every school's nightmare.  A child makes it to school and the school loses track of them, and they're gone.  I wish I could say that I can't imagine how this could happen, and certainly it isn't easy, but honestly, this could have happened at any school I've ever worked in.

Most schools have a system that works something like this:  when the bell rings, the teacher takes attendance.  That is conveyed -- either by a child messenger or by computer -- to the office.  Someone in the office, meanwhile, is taking phone calls from parents calling to say their child is sick and matching these with reported absences, also taking into consideration any children who come in late.  Then the office, or an automated system, calls the homes of children who are not accounted for.  Ideally, this should be done by the time an hour or so has passed.

There are plenty of places for this system to go wrong.  The teacher accidentally marks the wrong child absent.  She marks "excused absence" instead of an unexcused one, perhaps because a friend says he's sick, so the computer records that the parent has called the child off.  There is a sub who doesn't know how to properly mark the sheet, so the office misreads the attendance sheet.  There is a sub in the office who doesn't fully understand the system, or doesn't make phone calls at all.  Someone with a similar name signs in late, and the wrong child is marked tardy.  Some emergency takes attention away from attendance in the office, or a single phone call doesn't get made.

Now a child is missing, and it isn't hard to point fingers at the school, rightly or wrongly.  This is one of those times when the need for peers in early crisis response is especially clear.  The school staff are feeling terribly guilty, and they need to be able to talk to someone who understands how this could happen.  The Principal needs a Principal who gets that sometimes attendance isn't done properly.  The secretary needs a secretary who knows how hard it is to keep track of everyone.  The teacher needs another teacher.  And all of them need school staff who know how very responsible all of us in schools feel when something goes wrong on "our watch," and how much harder it is when you're being blamed from the outside as well as yourself.

As much as I know this could have happened in my school, or any school, I will also admit to some healthy skepticism.  The chances of the system failing for any individual child are pretty small.  The chances of it failing for the one child who happens to be missing are infinitesimal.  Something else happened here.  Maybe the school knows what it was, maybe they don't.  But even if they know what it is, even if they know it wasn't their fault, they're still going to feel guilty, and they're still going to get blamed.  Let's hope that somehow, Kyron gets home safe soon, and both the parents and the school can wake up from this nightmare.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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