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Now kids, you know there's no . . .

She said what? To fourth-graders? Now a North Port teacher has sent a letter of her own - to parents.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


Ryan Tingley is a stickler for details, especially when the 9-year-old makes his Christmas list.

"One of the things on his list was a pair of Rollerblades that pop out from tennis shoes," said his mother, Deborah Tingley.

"And I said to him, "Ryan, what is this?' "

He told her that "Santa has his workshop, and I know that he still does make things by hand and I'm sure he can create these."

And surely he could bring a scooter, a telescope and a big train set made out of Legos.

After all, there was something in it for Santa, too. Ryan and his 5-year-old sister, Meaghan, always left cookies and milk for him and carrots for the reindeer.

Besides, Ryan's grandma and Santa had to be buddies, he figured. Santa has left letters for Ryan at his grandma's.

But now, Ryan may not be so sure after his fourth-grade teacher said last week that jolly ol' St. Nick is a fictional character.

"I feel as a parent that I have been robbed of a very important learning experience," Mrs. Tingley said. She told the teacher, "If it was done under my supervision when I felt it was time, it would have been followed up with what the holiday means to us. What Santa means to us. And you took that from me."

Steven Dragon, the principal at North Port Glenallen Elementary School in Sarasota County, said Monday that the teacher's comments were inappropriate.

Around the Tampa Bay area, school district officials say they avoid detailed discussions about religious holidays and figures.

"My experience with teachers is that they're normally pretty cautious about that kind of thing. If it came up, (the answer) would be you need to talk to your parents about that," said Susan Rine, administrative assistant for elementary schools in Pasco County.

Ryan's teacher, Lois Medevic, who has taught in Sarasota public schools for six years, sent a letter Tuesday to parents at Dragon's request apologizing and explaining what happened.

"In the course of the discussion, I said that Santa Claus was not a real person either, rather a fictional character. It never entered my mind that some of the class still believed and I was about to spoil their holidays," Mrs. Medevic wrote.

"I wish I could take those few minutes back, but I can't. The only thing I can do is to let you know how sorry I am if I upset your child and your family."

Mrs. Medevic did not return telephone messages, but Dragon said she was remorseful and assumed that all students Ryan's age no longer believed in Santa Claus.

"I still don't think it was appropriate to make the statement. You just stay far away from those things," Dragon said. I taught fifth grade, and I never would have thought to say there's no such thing as Santa Claus. Well, no, maybe every kid didn't know that."

Some child psychologists say parents like to handle those types of issues themselves and there's an appropriate time, although there's no formula or perfect age, to tell a child about the reality of Santa Claus.

"I always think it's important to let the child take the lead," said Judith Becker Bryant, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida. "It's easy to make assumptions about what they really believe and what they might want to know when they ask us questions.

"You've got to know your child," she said. Ultimately, kids figure it out, and parents should not work hard to persuade or discourage a child's belief about Santa Claus.

"I think this kind of understanding emerges. Five different Santa Clauses at five different stores starts to clue them in. Parents don't need to wait for the perfect moment to spring this on them."

Mrs. Tingley said Ryan hasn't talked much about the incident since it happened last week, except for one notable observation about what his teacher said.

"She really could be lying because the North Pole is real," Ryan told his mom.

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