What do you do when your student tells you her father threatened her life?

Well, if you’re a K–12 teacher and you believe the student is at all credible (or maybe her credibility doesn’t matter), you have very specific reporting requirements, and there are protocols for that reporting that you have to follow, and there are individuals and agencies that will–all else being equal–respond to what you report, and, if all goes well, all the different components of this protective infrastructure will work together seamlessly so that student ends up safe and sound. If you’re a college teacher like I am, however, that infrastructure is not available to you. All you can do is what I did: talk with the student, find out as much as you can, be as supportive as you can, and try to persuade her to go to the counseling center, where she can talk to people who are trained to handle, and who have access to relevant resources in, situations like this. That last part doesn’t always work, but, thankfully, this time it did, because I have every reason to believe that the threat my student’s father made was credible.

For just that reason, obviously, and for others that will become clear in a minute, I don’t want to give here any potentially identifying details, and those details I do give are at least blurred, if not changed outright. So I will just say that this student is not enrolled in any of my classes this semester and that, when she was in my class several semesters ago, she told me enough of her story for me to know that her father’s threat fit a pattern of abuse that she’d been dealing with for years. In this particular instance, the way she described it, her father became enraged because he found out she’d been (non-sexually, non-romantically, not even as part of an ongoing friendship) alone in an enclosed space with a young male acquaintance. When her father found out about this, he started beating her, and it was during that beating that he made his death threat. I have to leave the specific details of the threat unstated because they could be used to identify her, so I will simply say that this woman comes from a country where so-called “honor killings”–a misnomer if there ever was one, since there is nothing honorable about them–are all too common, and that her father made clear to her that he was perfectly willing to murder her under that pretext.

Once the student had calmed down enough that she could talk about something other than the specifics of what she had been through, I suggested she go to counseling and she agreed. I walked her over with her and then went about the rest of my day, going to meetings, teaching my classes, and somehow it all seemed not exactly trivial, but a little bit beside the point. When I got back to my office, there was a voicemail from my student. She and the counselors, she said, had figured the situation out. She thanked me for my help and hung up. That’s it. I have neither seen nor heard from her since. I hope that means she and the counselors figured out a way for her not to go back home and that it is better, therefore, for me not to know anything that might give even the slightest hint about where she is. I hope, but there’s no way I can know for sure.

This is not the first time I’ve written about students of mine in similar, or potentially similar situations. In one case, I helped a woman escape from her husband and, in another, a student confided in me that she was thinking of running away so that she wouldn’t have to marry the man, or the kind of man, her parents wanted her to marry, but she wanted to go in such a way that her parents would think she was dead. What struck me in this case, however, was the way my student’s father openly used a network of other men to try to “keep his daughter in line.” She told me about one instance from a while back when she and a young man from her neighborhood were sitting together in a nearby park. The situation was, again, according to her, absolutely non-romantic and non-sexual, but a male acquaintance of the family saw them, took a picture with his phone, and sent it to her father. When she got home, her father confronted her with it and would not let her leave the house for two weeks. On this more recent occasion, when he threatened her life, he told her there would be people watching her every move, that he would know if she did anything “inappropriate.”

Those other people, the watchers, the informants, put me in mind of these lines from Sa’di’s Golestan:

To please the king who eats a single apple
from a subject’s garden, his slaves will pull
the tree up whole to plant in the palace yard;
and if he lets five eggs be taken by force,
his army will put to the spit a thousand birds.

There’s always someone willing to ride the coattails of someone else’s power and authority, but it’s the text that precedes these lines that gives them their real significance: “When the world began, oppression was a small hut that few people entered, but as more and more people chose to go inside, they built it up, and look how high it reaches now.” People choose, in ways both big and small, to become oppressors. Next week, I want to share with you the story these lines come from and talk about what it means to make that choice, or not.


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One Response to What do you do when your student tells you her father threatened her life?

  1. 1
    Navin Kumar says:

    This sounds like a terrible situation to be in. Good on you for helping her a best as you can. I hope she she escapes her father, which is the best of many bad futures for her.