Student Well-Being

Resources for Discussing Police Violence, Race, and Racism With Students

By Evie Blad — July 11, 2016 3 min read
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Two recent recorded police killings of black men and the killings of five police officers in Dallas have left many adults without words, especially not the words necessary to explain the violence and underlying racial issues to children.

Most public schools are out on summer vacation, but that hasn’t slowed the calls for educators to prepare to discuss the events of the last week with students when school resumes in the fall. This is true on an especially intimate level for staff at the Montessori school where Philando Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor before he was shot by a police officer at a traffic stop last week.

“Anna Garnaas, a teacher at the St. Paul, Minn., elementary school where Castile worked, is already anticipating what she will hear from her 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students when they return to class in the fall,” the Washington Post reports.

“ ‘I think that’s when we’ll see them crying and wondering and asking questions, the first day of school in September,’ she said. ‘Where’s our buddy? Where’s the guy who takes care of us and makes sure we have our most fundamental needs met?’ ”

This weekend, the New York Times published a sad compilation of the ways that young relatives of those killed in high-profile police shootings have been traumatized by the experience.

The list of young people burdened by these tumultuous times includes Tamir Rice's teenage sister, who lost 50 pounds after watching the police shoot him in 2014; the daughter of Oscar Grant III, killed by a transit officer while lying down on a California train platform in 2009, who as a 5-year-old would ask playmates to duck when she saw the police; and the 9-year-old nephew of Sandra Bland, who began sleeping in his mother's room after Ms. Bland's death last year in a jail cell. 'They are aware of what's going in the world, of how you can leave your house and you can very well end up in a body bag,' said a sister of Ms. Bland's, Shante Needham, whose four children continue to struggle with the death of their aunt. 'They watch the news. They see all the stuff going on on Facebook. And it's sad that kids even have to think like that, that if I get stopped by the police, I may not make it home.'

Research explains why student trauma should concern schools: Trauma can leave children in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, interfering with normal brain development, executive functioning, and engagement in classroom activities. And, short of addressing trauma, discussing current events in the classroom provides a real learning opportunity and a chance for students to develop social awareness and empathy about their peers’ experiences.

As it looks likely that protests and news coverage of recent events may continue well through the summer months, even children who haven’t been directly affected by recent events may have questions, concerns, or fears when they return to school.

Fortunately, there are resources teachers can use to frame discussions and to help anticipate what their students, particularly students of color, may be experiencing. Many of these resources were compiled after previous events, such as the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which prompted dramatic demonstrations and slowed the start of school. Some have been updated since. Here is a sampling.

First, check out this TED Talk by commentator Jay Smooth, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.”

Or consider discussing race specifically as it relates to education, a topic that obviously affects students in a very real and personal way. Education Week’s Beyond Bias series covered various facets of inequality in schools, including this research-based quiz to help measure implicit bias. And here’s a video the National Education Association made of Marley Dias, the 11-year-old who started a campaign to diversify her school’s book offerings, explaining systemic racism.

Is there anything you would add? Any tips or resources schools should be aware of? Tweet me or let me know in the comments.

Photo: A woman holds a child’s hand at a vigil for Alton Sterling, who was shot and killed by a police officer on July 6 outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. —Gerald Herbert/AP

Further reading on race, social-emotional learning, and traumatic events:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.