Discussing Racist Violence With Students: 4 Best Practices

By Libby Stanford & Madeline Will — May 17, 2022 4 min read
Children walk hand in hand out near the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022.
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Teachers continue to face difficult conversations with their students about violence in their own communities and around the nation, and look for ways to help students process those incidents.

The racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, N.Y., in which a gunman killed 10 people and injured three others Saturday, almost all of whom were Black, confronted educators with that weighty responsibility once again.

Students often ask questions about incidents of violence, prompting discussions about racism, gun violence, and trauma. It can be a daunting task for teachers, who may feel their own discomfort, sadness, or confusion about violence.

Here are four best practices for teachers as they help students process traumatic events.

1. Provide a safe space

Students are often inundated with bad news with little time and few opportunities to process it. Some teachers find the best strategy is to provide a setting so students share their feelings on current events.

Frank Mata, a high school English teacher in Riverside, Calif., said he plans to have these conversations in his 12th grade class on social justice. Mata, who is Filipino, said he can often feel the trauma among his students, especially his Black students who are deeply impacted by violent racism.

Andrea Castellano has a similar approach for her 3rd grade class in New York City. The teacher plans to focus her conversations about the violence on three questions: How does this make you feel? What questions do you have? What can we do about it?

“They trust me to be honest with them,” Castellano said. “I need to start off by recognizing the fear they have is a valid fear, so I hear them and acknowledge what they’re saying.”

2. Recognize impact on students of color

The Buffalo shooting is bound to be especially traumatic for Black students. For older students, the attack is only the latest in a string of incidents of violence fueled by white supremacy that they’ve witnessed in their lifetime.

Over time, the repeated attacks on communities of color create a sense of trauma among those students. Teachers should be aware of how discussions about racism-fueled violence may further fuel that trauma.

“What educators must understand is that a ‘real’ curriculum for many Black and brown students is a society that allows unarmed Black people to be shot, killed, and treated in powerfully inhumane ways,” wrote H. Richard Milner IV, a professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, in a 2015 essay for Education Week.

It’s important for teachers to recognize and empathize with Black students, who may feel particularly emotional about the discussion. That may mean letting Black students take a break when feeling overwhelmed or giving them the space to share their thoughts if they express a desire to speak.

3. Don’t shy away from conversations about race

It’s important for teachers to discuss the incident with students of all demographics, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to social justice.

Mata planned to bring white students into the conversations as much as students of color. The teacher specifically plans to talk to white students about how they can respond to racist comments they see online or hear in their day-to-day life.

The New York Times published a lesson plan for teachers looking to discuss white supremacy and the conspiracy theories that fueled the Buffalo attack. The lesson plan suggests that teachers start by having students read about the attack to gain an understanding of the facts and correct misinformation.

By having students connect the attack to other incidents of racist violence they can contextualize it and feel more empowered to act, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

4. Talk about how students can make a difference

It’s easy for anyone to leave conversations about mass violence and racism with a feeling of hopelessness. Teachers can play a role in changing that emotion by prompting students to discuss how they can take action.

Castellano said she’s especially focused on giving her students tools to help in light of the massacre. Because they are younger, her students often feel like they don’t have control over their environment.

The teacher plans to help the students feel empowered by making signs and participating in protests against social injustice. She also encourages them to have conversations about their own prejudices so they can work through them at an early age.

“Encouraging them to talk to their peers and to be reflective in the assumptions they’re making [can be] very powerful and very meaningful,” Castellano said. “It’s not going to solve global racism, but it’s an important step. If we do it, and other people do it, it makes a difference.”

There are also resources teachers can share with students to make a more immediate difference. News 4 Buffalo, the local CBS affiliate, compiled this list of ways people can support the victims of the attack and their families.

More resources for discussing racism and violence in the classroom


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