Anger, anxiety, and grief pervaded America’s classrooms Monday as students, teachers, and school leaders reacted to a gunman’s racist attack that killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
Nearly all of the 10 people slain and three injured in Saturday’s attack were Black. The alleged 18-year-old gunman, prompting local and national concern about the shooting’s impact on young people.
In a letter sent to the community on Sunday, Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Tonja Williams wrote that several of the victims were related to students and staff in the district. One of the victims, Pearl Young, 77, was a long-time substitute teacher, according to the Buffalo Teachers Federation, the local teachers’ union, and local news reports.
“There were also countless witnesses who are traumatized and who are directly connected to our students and staff,” Williams wrote. “In addition, the magnitude of news and social media outlets that continue covering this tragedy make it likely that most all, including our youngest learners, have heard conversations and may have even seen some very explicit, disturbing photos of yesterday’s events.”
Some of Buffalo’s teachers were hesitant to go back to work, anxious about the potential of violence in school classrooms, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. But the need to support the district’s students motivated them to attend school on Monday.
“The mood was anger, fear, but an overriding desire to want to be with their kids and to make sure that we work together to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Rumore said.
The situation has left teachers across the country grappling with a question they’ve become far too familiar with: How do I explain mass violence and racial hatred to my students?
A nationwide reaction
School officials in some communities provided resources to teachers and condemned the violence from Saturday’s attack. In Buffalo, the superintendent instructed principals to start Monday with circle meetings, to allow students to ask questions and discuss the attack in classrooms throughout the district.
Principals were also instructed to provide safe spaces for students to speak with trained school psychologists, social workers, and counselors, according to Williams’ letter.
The Boston Public Schools sent information on how to host a circle discussion on “responding to community trauma” for teachers who wanted to have a discussion about the attack.
Elsewhere, teachers prepared for difficult conversations to come. Frank Mata, a high school English teacher in Riverside, Calif., wasn’t in school on Monday, but he received a few messages from his 12th graders. They weren’t surprised at the latest racist attack. Instead, they noted a sense of inevitability.
“They’re just numb,” Mata said. “It’s the same pattern” of a white man with a gun, carrying out a racist attack and staying alive. Some of his students are afraid that eventually, the next mass shooting will happen to them, he said.
Mata, who is Filipino, was not looking forward to once again discussing a racially motivated shooting in class. But he said it’s important to give space for students to work through their feelings.
“The trauma is already there. Even if we’re not talking about it, you can feel it—especially in my Black students, you can see it already,” he said. “I’m a teacher, but I’m also their fellow human, so we just kind of be with each other.”
Andrea Castellano, a 3rd grade teacher in New York City, said it’s important for her to explicitly call out racism and white supremacy in her classroom. Castellano is white and her class is mostly Black with some Southeast Asian students.
Castellano was off work on Monday, but she planned to talk to her students about the shooting on Tuesday. She said that if a couple of her students already know what happened, she’ll allow them to explain it to their classmates in kid-friendly language. Then, she’ll fill in details as needed and correct any misconceptions.
She’ll also ask her students three questions: How does this make you feel? What questions do you have? What can we do about it?
Her students often want to have a protest and raise their voices against injustice. They’ll make signs and do a march around the schoolyard. Then, they will take their signs and put them in the windows of their home or parents’ car.
“I just don’t want them to think there’s nothing to be done,” Castellano said. “I don’t want them to have a sense of hopelessness. … I want them to come away feeling empowered in their own little way.”
What the experts say
Regardless of location, students are likely to ask their teachers questions about the shooting. There are some best practices for teachers discussing traumatic events, according to education experts.
The gunman in Buffalo livestreamed his attack, and the footage is still circulating on social media. Many students may have already seen a video of the attack, so teachers should find out what they know, correct any misinformation, and help them work through their feelings after witnessing violence, best practices say.
Teachers shouldn’t consider such a conversation tangential to their curriculum, experts say.
“Many Black and brown students see themselves reflected in racist acts, and such reflections manifest in their social, behavioral, emotional, and psychological well-being,” wrote H. Richard Milner IV, a professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, in a 2015 essay for Education Week.
Even so, discussing race and violence in the classroom can be traumatic for students, especially students of color. Teachers should be responsive to students’ feelings, and take the emotional temperature of the room throughout the discussion.
The shooting may hit close to home for Black students in particular, and some might need to opt out of the class discussion or take a break afterward. The Anti-Defamation League recommends that in early grades, teachers focus on the helpers, including those who are calling out the injustice.
Teachers can encourage students to take action to confront racism in their own lives and discuss together how allyship, advocacy, and activism can make a difference, the Anti-Defamation League says.
How teachers can approach the conversation may be impacted by recent legislation. Seventeen states have passed laws restricting classroom instruction which in some cases include talking about current events.
While most of the laws don’t explicitly ban teachers from talking about racial violence and mass shootings in the classroom, the chilling effect created by the laws and the vagueness of the adopted language have led a lot of teachers to stay away from talking about controversial topics due to fear of being disciplined. Last year, a teacher in Tennessee lost his job after saying white privilege was a fact.
Some state laws mandate that teachers who choose to discuss any current event have to provide both sides. In Texas, for example, the law says teachers should “strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
Some other laws, such as Florida’s, prohibit teachers from trying to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view” about race and racism.
And almost all 17 state laws mention that students can’t be made to feel guilt or anguish because of the past or current actions of their race or sex, which further inhibits what teachers can legally say about racism and racial violence.
A call for change
While the Buffalo community continues to grieve those who were killed, Rumore said educators are feeling the call to take action.
The teachers’ union president said the attack should be an impetus for change both on a local and national level. Rumore believes a nationwide push for better funding for mental health support and intervention is needed to prevent future attacks.
“The most important thing our teachers are saying right now is that we need more school counselors, we need more psychologists, we need more social workers, we need more community groups, we need a lot of resources,” he said. “And we need the federal government to actually say, ‘Yes this is a national emergency.’”
As the community pushes for change, Rumore said it also is struggling with deep sadness and fear. While the district provided teachers with training and resources as they talk to students about the attack, more can always be done to prepare educators, he said.
“There’s never enough that’s being done,” he said.
Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.