School Climate & Safety

Schools Prepare to Confront Questions on Race and Policing

By Denisa R. Superville — July 18, 2016 8 min read
Cameron Sterling, 15, is comforted at a vigil outside the store in Baton Rouge, La., where police shot and killed his father Alton Sterling on July 5.

As the nation responds to the aftermath of another spate of high-profile police-related shootings, educators are wading, once again, into thorny issues of police violence, bias, and America’s still unfinished struggle with race.

Educators from superintendents to classroom teachers—despite most schools still being in summer recess—are preparing to discuss the tragic deaths and bigger issues of race and policing as students start to return to school over the next few weeks. For many, it’s a repeat of the summer of 2014 when the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a series of national protests and helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the span of three days earlier this month, three shooting incidents in different states dominated national headlines.

Then, Sunday, a fourth shooting incident became the latest in a violent and chaotic month that has elevated racial tensions across the country.

• Alton Sterling, an African-American man, was shot and killed by a white police officer July 5 in Baton Rouge, La., after police responded to a complaint that he had brandished a gun.

• Philando Castile, a nutrition services supervisor in the St. Paul, Minn., school district, was shot and killed July 6 by a Latino police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn.

• Five police officers were shot and killed in Dallas on July 7 by a black man who authorities said wanted to harm white people, including police officers. The assault unfolded near the culmination of a protest calling for an end to police killings of African-Americans.

• Three police officers were shot and killed and several others were wounded in Baton Rouge July 17 by an African-American gunman, near the scene of regular demonstrations since Sterling was killed nearly two weeks ago. On Monday, authorities said the gunman, who was killed by police, had targeted the officers.

With those four incidents erupting in less than two weeks, ordinary citizens of all races to pundits on television and social media have been expressing fear that the nation was in danger of returning to the deep divisions and heightened racial tensions of the 1960s.

Speaking at a July 12 memorial in Dallas for the five police officers, President Barack Obama called for healing and unity, but also for understanding and compassion for both law enforcement officials and the people and communities they police.

Close to Home

For the school districts with direct connections to the recent shootings, processing the events will be more personal. Castile, 32, worked as the cafeteria manager at J. J. Hill Montessori School in the St. Paul school system. Sterling’s children attend the East Baton Rouge school district, and the district’s students organized one of the protests to the governor’s mansion that followed his death. The Dallas school district’s police force responded to the shootings in that city and the chief of that system is a former officer with the Dallas city police.

Colleagues in St. Paul described Castile as “cheerful” and “a team player,” according to a district statement. Superintendent Valeria Silva called Castile, a district graduate, “one of our own.”

Parents and co-workers at the school where Castile worked told reporters that he cared about students and had memorized their food allergies.

Cole Welhaven, the nutrition services coordinator for the district, said Castile was known to students as “Mr. Phil” and was a calm and cool presence in the school who kept a close eye on students’ food choices.

“He would laugh and joke with them, and he made sure they took their vegetables,” he said. “When kids came through the line, if they didn’t take any fruits or vegetables ... He would say, ‘you have to go back through the line.’ He just related very well with them.”

Responding to Student Needs

Michelle Clayton, the deputy superintendent in the East Baton Rouge district, said Sterling’s death brought the national debate about race and policing closer to home.

“It creates a sense of urgency around what’s going on in our community because our students are so directly impacted by what they are seeing every day—whether it’s in the neighborhood, or on the evening news, or whether they are planning activities around it. That changes the dialogue for us,” Clayton said.

East Baton Rouge principals are huddling with district administrators to develop plans to help teachers respond to students and their needs when they return to school on Aug. 10, including efforts to provide resources to students who may want to write or speak about race and policing as part of school assignments, she said.

Each school will be required to develop a plan to help students explore their core values, think about what it means to have courage and make the right decisions, and build relationships with other adults and students, Clayton said. The district will also be looking at how teachers coach students and communicate with them and whether that is being done in a meaningful and respectful way, she said.

Clayton said the district will contact educators in Ferguson,

New York City, and Chicago to find out how they worked with students and staff members in the wake of similar incidents. District leaders also plan to meet with school resource officers to discuss policing in schools, and to include students in those discussions “to see where we can build relationships and build trust between the school law enforcement officers and our students.”

“As a district, we are really focused on our role in the healing process,” she said.

Robyn Harris, a spokeswoman for the Dallas school system, said psychologists at the district’s family-wellness clinics were available to meet with anyone in the community. The district has been emphasizing social and emotional learning in recent years, and Harris said she expected that to be a key component of the district’s response when students return to school.

Dallas-area teachers have been deeply affected by the events.

Stephanie Dixon, an elementary teacher, said open conversations are necessary to bridge the racial divide. Dixon, who is white and married to an African-American man, said being with her husband has given her a keener understanding of some of the concerns voiced by African-Americans.

“It’s been like an ‘aha’ moment for me to say ‘this stuff is really happening,’ ” she said.

But not everyone has that experience, she said.

“I don’t think being sad is enough,” she said. “There has to be a lot of dialogue and conversations to break down these barriers. ... If you don’t start that dialogue, nobody is going to know that you face those issues or you have fears of certain people. Let’s talk about why you have those fears and see if they are even rational fears, and see how we can eliminate those fears, or how can I make you feel safe in your own skin.”

Dixon asks her students to bring in a photo at the start of the school year and describe the photo to the class. Students generally bring a picture of their family, while their classmates ask questions. The goal is to illustrate commonalities, but also to start a conversation about diversity and cultural awareness at an early age, an exercise that could have more profound resonance in the wake of the recent shootings.

‘Value Their Lives’

Jennifer Parmer, a teacher who until recently worked at Uplift Education charter network in Dallas, had planned to attend the protest where the police officers were killed. At the last minute, Parmer and her husband, who are both white, decided not to go.

A week after, she still tears up over the events that led to the protest and the officers’ deaths. She fears the nation is at a boiling point, but said she has seen “glimpses of hope” since the tragic events of the last few weeks that make her think the nation might be on the path to having an honest examination of white privilege, inequity, bias, and disparate treatment based on race.

For Mauri Melander, the principal at Lucy Craft Laney Community School in North Minneapolis, the response first starts with her staff. She said she’ll review with them the facts of what happened, ask questions, and then follow with a discussion. She’ll encourage them to do the same with their students.

Last week, Melander and her staff used the same exercise after a 2-year-old was shot and killed near the school. After the discussion, the teachers told students enrolled in summer school to do whatever they felt compelled to do to process their emotions. They could make cards, write notes, draw pictures, or do nothing.

They then walked to a memorial for the child, placed the cards and notes at the site, stood for a moment, and returned to school, she said. Most children were ready to proceed with the normal school day, she said. Those who were not ready got individual support, she said.

“I felt those couple of hours offered them the opportunity to organize their thoughts, ground their thoughts, and then regulate their thoughts,” she said. “It empowered them to say ‘I did something.’ I think a lot of the time, they feel the need to respond in some way, but they are children, so they often don’t know how to initiate that.”

She also said it’s important to stick to routines.

Melander, who is biracial, draws a connection between high-profile incidents, violence in the community, and how all of it impacts her students.

“We have a long [and], unfortunately, painful and sordid past of devaluing children of color and people of color in general. My fear is that my children—who are as young as 4 and as old as 11—that every time the news comes on, they continue to see another black or brown person whose life is ending,” she said. “And so their lives have been devalued, in my opinion. I have to flip that. ...Our job every day is to interrupt that, and flip it, and disrupt it, and highly value their lives.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Schools Prepare to Confront Questions on Race, Policing


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