It’s hard to blame prekindergarten teacher Sharon D. Perry Dunnigan for being concerned about the hygiene of some of her students. It’s an issue that requires attention. But it’s also a matter that demands care and sensitivity in handling, and Dunnigan could hardly have done a worse job of that.
The veteran teacher at BUILD Academy, disturbed by an unknown number of children who were wearing dirty clothes and smelling bad, sent a handwritten “urgent notice” home to all parents, requiring that the parents and pre-K child sign and return it to her “so I know you’ve read this.”
The reaction was swift and, for the most part, in line with the nature of the offense. Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, understood that the issue was real but also that Dunnigan handled it improperly.
“Sending that letter home to all parents is offensive and almost shows a contempt for the children,” he said. “As opposed to judging them, condemning them, make an effort to address the underlying problem. That would be most helpful to the parent, most helpful to the student and most helpful to the district.”
That’s the way to deal with a matter like this, not by sending home a churlish notice that looks only marginally more professional than a ransom note composed of letters pasted from random magazines.
It’s an infraction that the district appears to be handling appropriately. A letter will be put in Dunnigan’s personal file, along with other possible disciplinary actions, and she will no longer be allowed to send letters home to parents without first getting the approval of the principal.
That all seems in line – neither undervaluing the nature of Dunnigan’s actions nor overreacting to them. But that still leaves the problem that Dunnigan was responding to. Children who come to class unclean pose potential health risks to themselves and others and certainly can be a distraction from the goals of teaching and learning. However insensitively Dunnigan handled that matter, it does need to be addressed.
This seems like a matter in which the DPCC could play a constructive role, along with the district. This is a matter of education and perhaps persistence. It needs to be handled in a way that secures parents’ attention – 4-year-olds do not need to sign off – without offending or alienating them. That requires tact, something that Dunnigan showed no interest in employing.
Buffalo schools are coping with enough troubles without adding to them. The matter of hygiene needs to be an ongoing project for the district, handled with sensitivity and clarity.