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Feedback to story about teacher's note complaining of dirty, smelly children

What started out here as a School Zone blog post, then morphed into a front-page story that has since been picked up nationally, has garnered many opinions on whether it's OK for a pre-K teacher to send a handwritten note home to all parents saying that some children are coming to school smelly and unclean.

"It is a health and safety concern," wrote BUILD Academy pre-kindergarten teacher Sharon D. Perry Dunnigan. "It also makes it difficult for me to be close to them or even want to touch them. Enough said."

Nearly 400 comments were posted to the Saturday story. Newspapers, TV and radio locally and nationally have run with the story too. It seems people's reactions fall into one of two camps:

1. The teacher was entirely within her rights to send a note out to the entire class and alert all parents that this is serious problem. The backlash against this teacher is an example of political correctness run amok. Moreover, it's the parents who should be held accountable, not the teacher, for sending their children to school dirty and smelly.

One commenter wrote: "As a parent I have No Problem with this sort of notice. In fact I have read the letter to my children and reiterated the importance of personal hygiene as well as the daily routine they need to demonstrate before leaving the house. We need to confront these issues straight on, and stop sugar coating things for the children. Teachers should not have to deal with these issues as they have enough problems they need to deal with on a daily basis."

2. The teacher was unprofessional to send out such a poorly worded, handwritten note to all parents about a cleanliness issue that affected only a few of her children. She or the school nurse should have reached out personally to the parents of the affected children to resolve the issue in a more productive way. This kind of note won't help.

One commenter stated: "The letter was 100% unprofessional. I work in education (early childhood) and we have to deal with these situations all the time... she lacked tact and professionalism. There are other ways to go about this situation, my co-workers do it all the time. I would be mortified if I was heading up this school."

It's an interesting back and forth to read. But in light of some comments, I want to stress that no one I spoke with said they think it's OK for children to go to school smelling bad or wearing dirty clothes. No one said the teacher shouldn't have addressed this situation, and no one said that parents aren't responsible for sending their children to school clean. In fact, even critics of the teacher acknowledged the reality of children being sent to school unclean as a real problem.

"I’ve subbed in BPS for 8 years," said Bryon McIntyre, a vice president for the District Parent Coordinating Council, who brought the matter to the district's attention. "It happens."

"It's a common problem," said school board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak, adding, "You’re going to work in situations that aren’t perfect, and as a teacher you have to deal with it. You have to deal with it appropriately."

The issue here is whether Dunnigan's approach to dealing with the problem was reasonable. It's also worth noting that the Buffalo school district spends millions of dollars a year on student support staff who are hired to address situations like this one.

Here's the letter again for people who missed it the first two time around:

Cleanliness letter

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |