Seventh grader threatened in anonymous texts after testing positive for COVID

Katya Tolunsky and JP Eliopoulos

After a Middle Division (MD) student who tested positive for COVID-19 received threatening messages from an unknown phone number, Head of Middle Division Javaid Khan reminded students at last Thursday’s assembly to treat peers with the virus with kindness. The announcement was also spurred by students who attempted to find out the identity of the positive case. “I made a really firm announcement that this would not be tolerated,” Khan said. 

Students discovered the identity of the student who tested positive based on who had to quarantine, Evie Steinman (7) said. After that, someone made a new phone number to contact the student anonymously and threaten them. At the assembly, Khan urged the student who sent the threatening message to come forward. He also expressed his disappointment in that student, Steinman said. 

The assembly didn’t mention names, but Khan said there is no reason to threaten somebody online, Eli Taylor (7) said. “It also gave an opportunity for the offender to turn themselves in, rather than to lie,” he said.

Charles Taylor (7) said the assembly was necessary. Charles overheard mean comments and disrespectful language directed at the student who tested positive, he said. “My peers were treating each other awfully before the assembly,” he said. “They were harassing [the student] because they thought it was funny, but it wasn’t.” 

At the assembly, Khan showed a slide that contained four quadrants: mistake-maker, ouch-feeler, bystander, and upstander. Khan explained what each meant and dove into concepts relating to intent versus impact. “In this case, somebody reached out to a student and tried to find out who is not well, and I don’t know what their intentions were,” Khan said. “But that’s impactful for that kid who now feels like they’re somehow a pariah, or they have to defend themselves or anything of that nature.”

Overwhelmingly, the students were upstanders, Khan said. “After the assembly, I received so many emails and visits from kids who just felt so angry that this happened to one of their peers,” he said. 

Charlotte Henes (8) said the assembly helped her peers realize how hurtful words can be and how serious bullying and harassment are. “Students were harassing peers because they believe it was their peer’s fault that they caught the virus, but that is not a fair or right reason to bully or threaten a student,” she said. 

At the assembly, Rena Salsberg (8) said she learned to be mindful before saying something in a chat — or in person — about another student, she said. “It may cause peers to be more mindful about what they say, and respect everyone, especially those that have tested positive for COVID.”

Ethan Futterman (7) said it was not the students’ fault for testing positive, and therefore, it was wrong for his peers to go after the student. “Even though it was just one person who threatened the student [directly], it was one person too many.”

The person who may have sent the threat probably feels guilty about it now, Steinman said. “They probably didn’t know how badly it affected the student,” she said.  

This was not an incident of general meanness, Khan said. “I don’t think they just wanted to go after this student. I don’t believe that. I see too many instances of kindness here,” Khan said. “I think it has to do with those three emotions: anxiety, the need to know, and fear of losing school.”

Steinman said her peers wanted to know the identity of the positive case in order to have someone to blame for having to quarantine. “Some people are just curious though, or just want to gossip,” Steinman said. 

Khan recognizes that many of the students who wanted to know the identity of the positive case were driven by feelings of fear concerning their own safety, he said. “People just want to know if they are safe,” Khan said. 

Some students were simply protective of the little time that we had left in school together, Khan said. “We have to honor that feeling too,” he said. “It doesn’t make it right to go after a classmate and try to figure out who has it, but I recognize that those kids don’t want to lose their time away from school and being quarantined feels like a loss to them.” 

Charles said the assembly will change his peers’ behavior and it will make them think more carefully about what they do and say in the future. 

“It’s happened once and we’ve gotten a warning,” Futterman said. “If it happens again, then it’s going to be worse than a warning.”

Many students were subconsciously angry at the student who tested positive, Steinman said. “Khan helped us get our thoughts straight and realize that the truth is that this could have happened to anybody and it’s not the student’s fault.”