Equity & Diversity

Somber Mood in Charlottesville as Schools Prepare to Open

By Corey Mitchell — August 16, 2017 5 min read
A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., sits among flowers at a makeshift memorial in the Virginia city on Aug. 16.

During her days as a 4th grade teacher in Charlottesville, Va., Janette Martin remembers taking students on field trips to the site of the city’s controversial statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The place Martin often used to enliven Civil War history lessons has now become synonymous with something else entirely: a textbook example of hate.

In the wake of a violent white nationalist and neo-Nazi protest that erupted last week at the site that resulted in three deaths and dozens of injuries, preparations for the Aug. 23 start of the school year in this racially mixed district of 4,200-students have taken on a somber tone.

District students and staff were among those injured during the violence—and parents, including the school board president, now have reservations about allowing their children to walk and bike the streets.

“We saw it, we felt it, and it was my hope that children in the 21st century, our children today, would never have to have images like that in their minds. Visible images of hate and racism,” Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in an interview. “But unfortunately they do.”

Atkins and Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the nearby Albemarle County, Va., schools—along with their school board presidents—quoted the U.S. Constitution in issuing a joint statement after the violence that condemned the Aug. 12 rally organized to protest the planned removal of the statue of Lee.

“Most of it is about power, supremacy,” said Martin, a retired teacher and president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP branch. “The [education system] has to come out and take a stand.”

Surrounded by counterdemonstrators, white nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12.

The districts also provided a resource list for families looking to discuss the violence and racial unrest with their students.

“They’re going to bear those wounds internally and externally when we see them next week,” said Juandiego Wade, the president of the Charlottesville school board. “The places and images that they’ve seen on TV and [in the] newspaper, it’s not foreign. They walk past or see it every day. It’s real.”

Still unsure if it’s safe for her to bike to school, Wade has driven his high school-aged daughter to school activities in the days since the demonstration, which is the latest in a series of events targeting this college town of 48,000.

On May 13, alt-right activists led a nighttime rally in Lee Park, named for the Confederate general, in protest of the city council’s plan to remove the statue. Then, the city was the site of a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8.

Unrest and Unease

The unrest in Charlottesville has sparked conversations in statehouses and school board meetings nationally, reigniting debate over whether to eliminate school names, symbols, and mascots tied to the Confederacy.

Residents in the Tulsa, Okla., schools launched an online petition asking the district to rethink its decision to name a school after Lee. In nearby Oklahoma City, school board members have voiced support for renaming four schools named for Confederate officers.

A Georgia state representative and former teacher whose controversial remarks about slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and Confederate memorials, was removed from a state panel that makes recommendations on civics education after sending the state House speaker an article titled, “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States.”

Arguing that education is key to eliminating racism, Democratic lawmakers in Michigan introduced legislation that would require black history be taught in all public schools.

With white nationalists emboldened by what happened in Virginia and planning similar demonstrations in other cities, school leaders in those place should brace for impact, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an education project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Educators need to be ready,” she said. “Last year we saw an uptick in some very bad behavior at school as a result of the campaign and the election. Lots of people thought it was going to go away by the spring. It really didn’t go away. It hardened. The polarization we’re seeing in the country is being reflected in schools.”

Costello said her staff at Teaching Tolerance came across anecdotal reports last school year of principals encouraging teachers to duck in-class discussions about politics and current events. That’s the wrong approach, she said.

“The message they’re sending is there are some topics that are too dangerous to talk about. Or they’re sending a message that it’s really not important,” Costello said. “School is in fact a place where we try to figure out life. We are having these disagreements in the streets. School is the appropriate place to talk about them, and try to model how you talk about it without screaming at each other and without resorting to violence.”

Combating Racism

Martin, the retired Charlottesville teacher, sought to foster those types of discussions, even among elementary school students. More than half the students in Charlottesville’s schools are nonwhite.

“People are afraid to tell the truth and discuss things,” she said. “I’d tell my children, ‘None of you are responsible, so I don’t want [to talk] about who’s to blame in this. We are here to learn what happened.’”

The Charlottesville schools had plans for a celebratory convocation to welcome teachers back to class this week, but decided to channel that energy into discussions about what happened—and how educators can help students rebound from the trauma.

“There will be waves of processing this,” Atkins said. “Our teachers and our students will respond in different ways at different times.”

Ahead of the start of classes, administrators in the Albemarle County schools, which surround the Charlottesville district, are also working to help students and staff process what happened.

“It really is not treating students with respect when something as earthshattering as what happened over the weekend, and then you don’t acknowledge it,” said Matthew Haas, Albemarle County’s deputy superintendent.

The demonstration that swept through town, leaving death and destruction in its wake, made Atkins and Martin think back to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, they were the students relying on teachers to help them sort out and understand the disturbing images they saw on television and heard in radio reports.

“What happened when we went into the schools, we got a deeper understanding of not only what was happening, but how we could equip ourselves to fight against it,” Atkins said. “It helped us to understand the importance of education. That education was one of the major avenues by which we combat this kind of racism.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as In Va. District, Back to School Amid Tensions

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