Last night I got a disturbing email from my school district. It warned parents of a “safety incident” and attempted to put us all on high alert.
Apparently a student was walking home (in the rain, it is worth noting) and someone in a car pulled alongside and offered her a ride. She did what all kids who have been taught stranger danger are told to do – she said no, and then went back to the school and reported the incident. The school *of course* called the police.
The police are now increasing patrols. The district sent out this email to alert all district parents of this safety incident – the email includes a description of the driver – a white male – and his car. The description was thorough enough that I imagine people in the nearby area have probably identified this person.
It’s a MAN!
Here’s why this email concerns me.
It sends the wrong message, it teaches the wrong lesson – it criminalizes the actions of a man without any due process. It assumes the worst of intents from this man and broadcasts that assumption out to his entire community. It perpetuates “Scary Man Syndrome” and we REALLY don’t need anymore of that.
Here’s what I imagine happened – some guy saw a drenched kid trudging home in the rain and thought, “Gee, that sucks. If I was that kid I’d be wishing for a ride. Hey, wait a minute – I have a dry car, I could offer her a lift.”
Wet, sad, maybe this kid needs a lift?
He probably didn’t think past that. He probably didn’t think, “stranger danger!” because he knows he’s not a dangerous guy.
When the girl said, “No thanks, I’m okay.” (Or, alternately screamed in his face and ran away – the email isn’t really clear on this.) he pulled away and went home.
The email certainly doesn’t imply that he continued following her, harassing her or that he stopped and got out of his car or tried to force her into it in any way.
It sounds like a nice guy tried to help a kid, was told no, and left.
And then… His entire community was put on high alert and given a description of him as a possible safety threat.
He was tried and convicted of being male in public without due process or the benefit of the doubt. His community has been told that he is guilty without any presumption of innocence.
And this happens to men ALL. THE. TIME.
And that is a HUGE problem.
Now – I know, I have previously talked about how threatened women can feel moving through public space, and I’ve talked in-depth about the idea of Schrödinger’s Rapist and why it is not unreasonable for a woman to be cautious and wary of males. And so perhaps you are wondering why this bothers me so much. After all, didn’t I once say that all men are potential rapists?
Here’s the thing – No. I didn’t. I said that on an individual, personal level, I understand and respect caution.
To me, the idea of Schrödinger’s Rapist is not so much something that tells me to be scared of all men always – and treat them as criminals – but a way of explaining to men who are upset when I (or another woman) am standoffish in certain circumstances (ie, when I feel unsafe or threatened), why that might be, and perhaps even ways to approach those situations differently if they don’t want to trigger a fearful reaction. (Want to offer me help late at night? Start by respecting my personal space – don’t corner me, grab me, or shout at me. Those are not reassuring actions. If I say no thanks, respect it and carry on with your life.)
Stranger danger is the child’s version of Schrödinger’s rapist – it is a way of advising personal caution, it should NOT be used to pre-emptively criminalize all men.
I think it was wise of this girl to say no to getting a ride from a stranger – it is what I have taught my children to do. It is what most of us teach our children to do. We don’t get in cars with strangers. (Unless they are taxi drivers.)
I think this girl was justified in telling a trusted adult about the incident. Again, this is what we tell children to do.
The child did not fail. The adults did.
The adults were wrong to warn the entire community about the risk posed by this man without first investigating to see if there really was a risk.
Just as I would be wrong to treat every male as a potential threat by calling the police every time an unknown male spoke to me, said hello or offered to help me with something, or by posting a photo or description of the man and warning people to watch out for this guy who is going around offering to help women change their tires, or is offering them the use of his phone when their battery has died, or is approaching women and giving them directions to the restaurant where they are supposed to be meeting their friends, etc.
By sending out this email, what the district did was not warn parents of a potential safety threat, what they did was tell all parents, “Don’t help kids. You will be assumed to be guilty of child-endangerment and we will turn your community against you.”
They took the idea of “stranger danger” and acted as if it was true – as if all strangers ARE dangerous. As if all strangers, especially male strangers, ARE a threat – and the community must be alerted.
That is a message that we all too often send, especially about men. And to men.
BUT – NOT ALL MEN ARE DANGEROUS. Not all strangers are dangerous. AND there WILL come a time in every child’s life, in every person’s life, when they will NEED to rely on a stranger for help.
What we need to be teaching isn’t blanket fear – but reasonable caution.
We can’t do that when we post a warning about a “safety incident” every time a man tries to help someone.
My husband and I sat our kids down after we processed this email and talked to them.
We asked them what they would do if they were walking home in the rain and someone they did not know offered them a ride.
“We’d say no thanks, and that our house was close and keep walking.”
“What if it was a woman?”
“I still wouldn’t get in the car. Women can be kidnappers too.”
“Would you call the police?”
“No. Why would you do that? They were probably just being nice, but I know not to get in a car with a stranger.”
“What if they followed you and kept asking?”
We talked about how, if they were more than a block from our house, or were feeling really threatened, the best thing to do was to turn into the next drive way they saw and act as if it was their house, and that they could go as far as ringing the bell or knocking on the door and asking to use the phone.
Read that again – the advice we gave our kids if they felt threatened by a stranger was to GO TO A STRANGER’S HOUSE AND ASK FOR HELP.
We did not say, “But if a man answers the door, run away again.” We said, “Ask the next available stranger for help. Period.”
Because MOST PEOPLE are not dangerous, and if you really are being threatened, you need to take that leap of faith and GET HELP.
The other day some kids showed up on my doorstep and asked to use my phone to call their mom, who was running late getting home from work.
Of course I invited them in, handed them my phone, listened and made sure that everything was okay, mom was on the way, and then made sure they felt safe waiting at their house for her.
That is the most likely scenario if my kids ever need help from someone – that they will get it. I need my children to know that, and trust that because life is uncertain and sometimes shit happens. Sometimes we need help, and a stranger is the only person around to ask.
A couple of years ago my husband was driving home and saw a group of boys surrounding another boy, who was crying. He pulled over, got out of his truck, walked over slowly and asked from a few feet away, “Is everything okay here?”
“Our friend is hurt! He can’t breathe!” One of them said.
“Do you need help?” my hubby asked.
He walked over, helped the kids, made sure the injured boy didn’t need medical attention, helped him get up and made sure that the group had a safe house and an adult to go to while the injured boy caught his breath and recovered. He made sure the boy was mobile enough to get there and that his friends were helping him and then he came home.
What the district’s email told my husband is that his actions in that moment should be viewed as threatening and dangerous – that those boys should have been scared and should have reported my husband.
That is a terrible message to send – to my husband, who is a good person and likes helping people, and to kids who might someday need to trust a stranger in order to get help.
Treating all men as dangerous criminals is a terrible policy and it degrades the community by eroding trust and expanding fear.
Yes, some men – and women – are bad people, but most of them are not. And we need to empower the “good guys” to take action and be helpers when they see people in trouble, not punish them for trying to help or make them too afraid to offer.
Strangers can be helpers too.
So, how could the district have handled this differently?
First – listen to the child. Get the description of the car and the driver. Get enough details from the girl to ascertain whether there is a reason to suspect this person poses a threat. Again – did he listen when she said, “No thanks”? If he did – he’s probably not a threat. Notify HER parents, and carry on. If he continued to follow her, harass her or got out of his vehicle and tried to grab her – his threat level just went up exponentially. Call the police.
Then it is up to the police to use her description, locate the driver, interview the driver and determine whether he is a genuine threat to anyone’s safety, or just a clueless guy trying too hard to be helpful. He might need to be educated about “no means no, even from a child you are trying to help.”
Only if there was an ACTUAL, GENUINE threat should everyone in the district have been notified to be on the lookout for this man and his car.
I remember an older man back in Oregon who loved to give candy to other people’s kids. He hung out at our grocery store and would walk up to kids and give them candy from his pocket.
The first time he tried to do that with my daughter I told him no thanks because she was too young for candy. He thanked me for being so polite and confided in me that so many parents these days got upset with him and that some had even called security.
I asked him, as gently as I could, if he knew why. He was truly, honestly baffled.
I explained the new fears of stranger danger and men with candy, and how his actions might be perceived as threatening or dangerous. He was shocked. And hurt. He was just a nice, lonely old man who lived in a nursing home and liked making kids smile.
“Next time, try asking the parent first – before you talk to their child. See if it helps.”
The next time I saw him, he shook my hand and said that he had much more luck, and that even though most parents still wouldn’t let him give their kids candy, they at least let him say hello and talk to them for a minute. That was all he had really wanted. He just didn’t know how to navigate the new standards of behavior.
I remember another story from a man who drove past a girl who looked distressed on the side of the road. It was raining and there was a small flash-flood. He thought about stopping to offer her a ride, but he was scared to do so because he was alone and he knew how that would look – single guy picking up a young girl in his car – so he kept driving.
The next day the front page of the local newspaper had a picture of the girl. She had slipped, fallen down an embankment and drowned in the swollen ditch at the bottom.
He has never forgiven himself for not offering her a ride. But his fear of OUR fear prevented him from offering her the help that would have saved her life.
This is the consequence of demonizing all men, or criminalizing all men, or teaching fear of all men.
When we slap men with the predator label and treat them as if they are guilty until they prove their innocence, we create a box that we can’t see through, trapping men in our negative assumptions of them. We cloak them in our worst first thinking and they never have an opportunity to prove us wrong.
If a guy trying to help a child get home safely is labeled a threat without due process, what hope is there for all the many, many men who are trying to be helpers?