Nora Nissenbaum thought the boy in her sixth-grade class was cute, so they casually texted for about a month. But she didn't like it when the boy insulted her friends at a school dance — and told him so.
The relationship soured. The boy sent anti-Semitic memes and text messages. A caption for one meme reads, "Orange Jews: 100% Concentrated," under an orange-tinted photo of concentration camp prisoners standing behind barbed wire.
As he faced discipline for those messages, he allegedly made a verbal threat to go after Nora and other classmates in a school shooting. The boy, whose lawyer did not return calls for comment, now faces harassment and terroristic threat charges in Juvenile Court. And 12-year-old Nora has left Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School.
All the while, parents say, school officials kept the trouble quiet and didn't alert families in the district to a threat that many consider a public safety issue that should have been dealt with swiftly and transparently. And in the absence of a statement from the district, parents found out about what happened through the rumor mill. With news of mass school shootings regularly catapulting into headlines, many parents in the Chester County district, consistently ranked as one of Pennsylvania's best, are upset. And the Nissenbaums are criticizing the district as being too secretive with the community about the bullying and threats, as downplaying an issue they and many other parents find serious.
"Kids can't help but be somewhat aware of what's happening in the news week after week," Sandy Nissenbaum, Nora's mother, said. "So it was traumatic to have it kind of touch her own life."
The Nissenbaums pulled Nora out of school in mid-May in favor of lessons taught at home by a tutor. The school year ends this week.
This summer, Joel Frank, the lawyer the Nissenbaum family hired, will seek a permanent protection-from-abuse order for Nora, which would order the boy to have no contact with her. The order would be an upgrade from the temporary court order the Nissenbaums received in March.
"Before all this, Nora was a confident, happy, silly, fun, loving 12-year-old with a lot of friends," said Sandy Nissenbaum, who reported the texts to the school district and the police in March. "So the impact on her has been really very upsetting and scary, seeing her from going that way to someone who has panic attacks and deep sadness."
The Nissenbaums have now stepped into the role of activists whose goal is to prod the 6,900-student Tredyffrin/Easttown School District into creating stricter rules for disciplining a child when there are serious allegations, such as threatening to carry out a school shooting.
By not publicly discussing the incident with the entire district immediately after it happened, Nissenbaum said, the school district missed the opportunity to stress to students how bullying can affect peers. The district also didn't lead a potential conversation on improving mental health treatment for bullies or bully victims, she said.
In 2016-17, the most recent Student Assistance Program data available, bullying was the primary cause of 443 referrals by school officials in Pennsylvania, according to state education data. A broader category labeled "Behavioral Concern" was the primary cause for 23,439 referrals. The data do not specify what justifies a referral for "Behavioral Concern."
"We've been thrown a lot of curve balls in parenting," said Nissenbaum, of Wayne, "but this is absolutely surreal."
Nissenbaum said that when school officials learned of the incident, they changed class schedules for Nora and the boy so they would see each other less, and later held a few public meetings about school safety. But, she said, Tredyffrin/Easttown administrators shouldn't balk from publicly talking about acts of violence or hate from students while still respecting the privacy of the minors who are involved.
In this case, "even if the school chose to not send out notice of the allegations to all parents, this could still serve as a 'teachable moment,'" said Sara Jacobson, an associate professor and the director of Trial Advocacy Programs at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.
"The school could hold public education seminars for the students on bullying, tolerance, and why threats must be taken seriously and aren't a laughing matter," Jacobson said.
The school district did not return repeated calls for comment. An employee in the superintendent's office who picked up the phone said the district's only statement would come from its website. Two statements posted on the site in May do not refer to any specific incident, but say the school often requires a risk assessment by a psychologist or psychiatrist to determine if a student is harmful to themselves or others. "Appropriate supports" are always offered to students involved, one statement says, and district officials will also implement "additional focus groups," and consult with experts from the state, local, or national levels for information about safety protocol.
The choice to alert members of the school community to an incident involving a student is made on a "case-by-case basis," Michael Kristofco, who provides legal advice for the district, said in a statement. "In some cases, there is so little information that can be publicly shared, any statement made by the district would end up being vague and unhelpful to the point where it would only exacerbate parental concerns."
Tosin Omolewu, who has children in the district, disagrees with how the district handled the incident.
"So much is shrouded in secrecy that you wonder if they're doing it to protect themselves as opposed to protecting the kids," said Omolewu, who started an online petition on change.org directed at Tredyffrin/Easttown Superintendent Richard Gusick. She titled the petition: "Let's change Tredyffrin/Easttown response protocol to reported threats."
Katrina Hayday, another parent in the district, said school administrators erred by allowing the boy to return to school.
"A student who makes threats as clearly as this child has should under no circumstances be able to return to school," Hayday wrote in a text message for this article. "I don't care if he was give a 'clear' assessment. He made statements related to religion and that to me constitutes a hate crime."
Jacobson, of Temple University's law school, said the response to the situation was reasonable.
"The school disciplined the student, changed the offending student's class schedule and locker location. They even reported the incident to the police," Jacobson said. "I don't know whether they implemented their risk-assessment protocol, but presumably they did. Would wider immediate publicity have made Nora or her parents feel safer? Short of immediately, permanently, removing the other student from the school, I'm not sure what would have made them feel completely safe."
Despite pulling her daughter out of school, Nissenbaum said, she is pleased with the quality of teachers and curriculum in the district. She hopes Nora can return to school in the fall.