What is the role of schools in helping students process big, distressing events in their cities? And, in sitations like the unrest in Baltimore, how much are children absorbing? What do they expect from their parents and teachers?
Many students in Baltimore—off school Tuesday after riots in parts of the city led to burned cars, looted buildings, and injured police officers Monday night—gathered to talk about the tension;about Freddie Gray, a black man who died after he was injured in police custody this month; and about the racial and social factors behind the events.
They were concerned about how people in other parts of the country would perceive their city after viewing images of the destruction. And they were concerned about how their own city viewed them after some teens were involved in an initial clash with police Monday afternoon.
Will their teachers talk about Gray’s death and the response that followed when they return to the classroom? The students said they hope so. Before announcing plans to close schools Monday night, the Baltimore city school district said its response to demonstrations in the city would include classroom discussions.
“We are also communicating with each one of our school leaders around effective instructional strategies to heighten student awareness and understanding of social justice issues,” the district said in a statement. “We are deeply concerned about our students and community, and we hope to treat this situation not only as a teachable moment but also a time for thoughtful reflection on how we can reduce conflict and violence in our society.”
Around Baltimore Tuesday, community organizations, coffee shops, churches, and libraries opened to feed students who may rely on free and reduced-price meals normally provided in school. They also provided a place for students to reflect.
A Sensitive Topic
While students have been discussing Gray’s death at school, many teachers have been reluctant to bring it into whole class discussions, they said.
“It’s like discussing religion in class almost,” sophomore Katie Arevalo said. “It’s difficult because you don’t know the different perspectives or how people are feeling.”
Arevalo and classmate Rodney Moore, a senior, spent the day volunteering and passing out flyers about a march planned in response to Gray’s death. She said she wants her teachers’ discussions to extend beyond how students are feeling about what’s happening in their city toward underlying economic, social, and racial factors.
“If everyday is the same discussion, I don’t know how productive that is,” Arevalo said.
Moore said he’s led a protest at school since Gray’s death. While the frustration rioters showed Monday night may be “somewhat justified,” they took that anger in the wrong direction, he said. And because the riots were frightening and overwhelming to some students, Moore said he understood why the district cancelled school.
“It would have been hard for us to go to school,” he said.
“It’s Not Right”
Blair Pierce, 9, attended a peaceful march with his mother, Kimberly Clark, over the weekend.
“The police kept killing people, young people,” Blair said when asked why people are protesting.
Blair didn’t understand everything that happened Monday night, but he saw images of fires and destruction on TV. “They shouldn’t do stuff like that,” he said. “It’s not right.”
Clark said she hopes her son’s teachers will talk about the riots at school because such responses “aren’t teaching young people anything.”
“I think they should talk about it now so that when they get older, they know how to deal with situations like that,” she said.
Not a Spokesperson
Hylah Johnson, a 14-year-old black girl who attends private school in Baltimore County, said her mostly white classmates can sometimes see her as a representative of all African-American people in discussions involving race, including discussions about Gray’s death.
“They’re going to automatically assume I know what’s going on,” she said. “It started out intimidating, but you get used to it.”
“I think it’s necessary to put yourself in that position sometimes, especially if you’re socially aware,” she said.
Not a Day Off
In the basement of Baltimore’s Teach for America headquarters, a community group led students in a discussion of what’s happening in the city.
Students broke into groups to discuss what contributed to the riots and then they had a whole-room discussion, arranging their ideas into a timeline. That timeline started not with Gray’s death but with colonialism in Africa. Events and ideas included on the timeline: segregative housing policies, the 1968 riots in Baltimore, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the neglect of some poor neighborhoods in the city, and the death of Trayvon Martin.
Adult volunteers, including many teachers, helped facilitate the discussions.
“Kids have a lot to say. They also have a lot of questions,” said Julie Oxenhandler, a 6th grade math teacher at the discussion. She said she’s been working to learn more about the demonstrations over the weekend so that she can answer student questions when school resumes. “Freddie Gray could have been my students’ brother or cousin,” Oxenhandler said.
Teachers volunteered because they knew students would need to process events, and they wanted to help them do it, they said.
“I don’t think any teacher should see this as a day off,” Oxenhandler said. “Our responsibility just looks a little different.”
Schools received some criticism for Monday’s cancellation from parents and advocates who argued that school would provide children with stability and a place to discuss the riots.
Baltimore City Schools Chief Executive Officer Gregory Thornton acknowledged those criticisms in a letter to the community Tuesday evening. The district plans to resume school Wednesday, he wrote, and teachers, counselors, and administrators are “planning activities that will help students learn from the past days’ events.”
“Despite that it came after days of rising tension, yesterday’s violence felt like a shockwave across the city. But I am writing to tell you that it will not overwhelm us,” Thornton’s letter said. “At this time, we are moving forward to open schools tomorrow as scheduled. With students, staff, family members, partners, volunteers, and community members, City Schools is more than 100,000 strong—and in the coming days and weeks we’ll be marshaling our strength in support of our students and a successful end to their school year.”
Related reading: President Obama’s comments on Baltimore included a call to support education programs, Politics K-12 reports.
Top photo: A sign outside of Red Emma’s coffeeshop, which offered free lunches to students Monday.
Middle photo: Arevalo and Moore
Bottom photo: Discussion prompts at a meeting for students.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.