Schools Are Urged To Follow Through On Lessons of King Verdict, L.A. Rioting
Nearly every student in America has learned something since a jury virtually exonerated four white police officers accused of severely beating the black motorist Rodney G. King and rioters took to the streets in Los Angeles, educators said last week.
But exactly what those lessons are will depend in large part on how well schools follow through with their initial response to the nation's worst outbreak of civil unrest in this century, they added.
School districts across the country reported last week that teachers were encouraged to allow their students to sort through their feelings about the verdict and its aftermath.
Now, experts said, schools need to continue to use the "living lesson'' to explore the complex factors that led to both the jury's decision and the disturbances in cities across the nation.
"If parents and teachers in particular seize the opportunity to help children both process their fears and to clarify what the events imply for their values, it can be a stimulus for moral development,'' said James Garbarino, the president of the Erickson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development and the author of a new book called Children in Danger: Coping With the Consequences of Community Violence.
Without a concerted effort to clarify the meaning of the events in Los Angeles, he cautioned, there is the risk that children will "default'' to damaging stereotypes to explain what happened.
"The default for blacks is that white devils are at it again,'' he said, "and for whites, that the blacks are up to their self-destructive tricks.''
Shaping the lessons that children learn in a responsible way, Mr. Garbarino and others warned, will be complicated by the conflicting feelings that their parents, teachers, and other adults bring to the questions of race and class that underlie the recent events.
"These are difficult issues, controversial issues, and they are laden with all sorts of emotional content on everybody's part,'' said Ruth Bowman, the executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility. "They are usually the most difficult ones to deal with in the classroom.''
Frances Haley, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, recommended that teachers turn to discussions of the civil-rights movement and of the economic conditions that contributed to the looting and arson.
Although the Bush Administration has linked the unrest in Los Angeles to the social-welfare policies of the 1960's, "there were tremendous strides made in the 1960's and 70's,'' Ms. Haley said. "Teachers need to talk about why that stopped.''
School districts also should examine their curricula to see whether such topics have been "shortchanged'' in the past, she said.
In the days immediately following the burning, looting, and street violence, schools focused their energies on providing constructive ways for students to express their feelings.
In scattered cities across the nation, there were assemblies, mock trials recreating the police officers' trial, sit-ins, walkouts, and a televised "town hall'' meeting over a school-district television station.
Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said none of the group's 47 districts reported any serious incidents stemming from students' displays of concern.
"I think the schools did a superb job in handling a very, very tense situation by giving the kids an opportunity to discuss their frustrations over the case,'' he said.
In many schools and districts, he added, existing conflict-resolution programs provided a framework for discussions of the rioting.
In Atlanta, for example, the school system stresses a "values curriculum'' that emphasizes solving problems without resorting to violence, said Myrtice Taylor, the associate superintendent for instructional services for the Atlanta public schools.
"This is a great time for asking students what else could the public have done in response to such a decision,'' she said, "and we've done that.''
Mr. Casserly said urban school officials, who have been pushing for legislation to focus new attention and resources on inner-city schools, believe that the renewed concern over the conditions in cities may strengthen their case.
"You can't have urban revitalization without urban-school improvement,'' Mr. Casserly said.
For example, Joseph A. Fernandez, the chancellor of the New York City schools, last week called for a "Marshall Plan'' to aid city schools.
Education as a 'Defense'
John Skief, who teaches African-American history at West Philadelphia High School, said he was determined that the lesson his students took away from from the trial and the rioting would not be "win a few, lose a few, and you have to accept it.''
He created a lesson using videotapes that explored stereotypes of black men throughout history, including the characterization of them as "beasts,'' which, he noted, was employed by the defense in the Los Angeles officers' trial.
"I got them to understand that for us to riot fed into the perception that blacks were beasts, and a threat,'' Mr. Skief said. He also encouraged his students to be just as concerned about the killing of blacks by other blacks as they are when white people kill blacks.
Along with exhorting his students to respect themselves and others, Mr. Skief said, he tried to convey that their best defense against injustice is a "well-educated mind.''
That was also the lesson that Patricia Ackerman, the principal of Taylor Academy in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, taught her students in the days following the riots.
Ms. Ackerman said she taught a lesson discussing the difference between a riot and a revolution.
"I encouraged them to start a revolution of peace within themselves and said that the best way they can begin to change a world they feel is unjust is to get the stuff in the head that they need,'' she said.
Students from the academy also met with the city's mayor to discuss concerns about the treatment of young people in the suburban Cleveland community, said Somona North, a 9th grader at the school who coordinated the meeting.
"We talked about starting a public-awareness group in our school and in our community,'' Ms. North said.
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At Malcolm X Academy in Detroit, a public school that serves predominantly boys, a 5th-grade class drafted letters to newspaper editors.
Clifford Watson, the founder and principal of the African-centered school, said the boys expressed concern about the unfairness of the jury's decision and the senselessness of the looting.
"As one student stated, the jury made an error, but just because they made an error, you don't go out and vent your anger at innocent people,'' Mr. Watson said.
The boys in the class also learned a painful personal lesson from watching the videotape of Mr. King being beaten, the principal noted. Because the students are well aware that young black men are frequently stopped by police, they discussed how they should behave in that situation.
In schools outside of urban centers, however, the rioting in Los Angeles seemed a much more remote event.
Classrooms that show "CNN Newsroom'' and the "Channel One'' news program offered by Whittle Communications could watch coverage of the events on those programs. The topic took up 90 percent of the CNN program for four days, a spokesman said.
And Channel One produced a special one-hour "town hall'' program on the verdict and the riots last week. It was taped at a Catholic school in a Los Angeles neighborhood heavily damaged by the riots.
Students at Bismarck (N.D.) High School had to struggle to understand that the riots were real, because they live in "a much different environment'' than Los Angeles, said Greg Haugland, the school's principal.
"It's kind of like watching 'Miami Vice' on television for us,'' he
said. "It's almost like it's a different world. We have a hard time
putting these sorts of things in perspective.''