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Fear Comes to School: Mediating Among Parents Around Ebola

Although the tsunami of Ebola fears is receding, it has provided our profession a reminder about the enormous power of fear to provoke conflict. During the first weeks of November, I spoke at conferences of elementary and secondary educators in both the northeast and the southwest, and at each I was asked for advice by administrators facing concerned parents on the one hand, and seeking to keep their schools functioning normally on the other. 

The situations were slightly different – one involving medical personnel rotating to and from West Africa, and the other members of a large local diplomatic community, but the issue was the same. A number of families were demanding to be informed which parents were coming back to the community, and arguing that those parents’ children should be excluded from school because of the presumed danger they posed. Despite available medical information, the families, like the governor of Maine and others, felt that an extreme of caution was required. On the other hand, the traveling parents were hurt or indignant at this reaction, and had no intention of complying with the request.

In our conversations, we came to some common understandings and at least one core strategy.

First, we agreed on the futility of countering fear with repetition of the same information that was already widely available.  Although there are no reliable meters to measure the power of fear as opposed to that of, say, prejudice or anger, fear may well be the most deep-seated of all emotions, and the hardest to eradicate. When the consequences of a feared event are devastating enough, and especially when the threat is unfamiliar, sometimes not even an iota of uncertainty is tolerable.

Second, we felt, it would be even more dangerous to seek the moral high ground. If “You have nothing to worry about” was a useless response, “You ought to be ashamed” was likely to be counterproductive and exacerbating. Though the affected families might harbor such a feeling, it was not for the schools to make that judgment, nor even, if possible, to allow it to enter the public arena.

What, then, was the best response, if their goal was to protect the rights of the children of returning parents, and to continue carrying out the educational mission of the schools as normally as possible?

Perhaps, we thought, it was to focus on the commonality between the two groups of parents, and to unite them through the very fear for their children that was the root of the conflict. A parent-to-parent communication, under the auspices of the school administration, might result in a degree of understanding that would allow forward movement.

If some of the fearful parents could state their concerns respectfully and clearly, not to the school but to the other families, that very act might begin to connect the two.The parents who were seen as potential carriers, especially those with medical training, could then make common cause with their counterparts along these lines: “We understand your over-riding concern for your children, because we are also parents. We care as much for our children as you do for yours. Can anyone imagine putting their own children and partners at risk by returning home and hugging, kissing, touching, and eating with them while being unsure if that might harm them? The only way we could jeopardise you and your family, is by first jeopardising our own.  Please understand that we will take every precaution, even to the extent of isolating ourselves from our children and partners, if there was any reason to do so.”

One school combined elements, inviting the medical director of its most prominent city institution to speak about both the science and the universal devotion of parents to the well-being of their children, to apparent success. As similar situations play out, we may learn useful lessons for the future.


Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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