Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten by police officers in Memphis and subsequently died from his injuries last month. While police killings of Black people have been taught and talked about in classrooms for years, it’s critical to continue having these conversations, even in the face of legislation in many states that aims to restrict them, experts said.
On Jan. 7, Nichols was pulled over by police officers for a traffic stop, pulled out of his car, pepper sprayed and severely beaten by five police officers. He had to be hospitalized and three days later, died because of his injuries, including a blow to the head. The five officers that beat him were fired and charged with murder and other crimes.
The violent killing has thrown into question the dynamics of law enforcement and racism because the five officers that beat Nichols were also Black. Since 2015, more than 1,900 Black people have been fatally shot by police, and that does not include cases like Nichols, or George Floyd.
It’s important for teachers to let students ask questions and to be prepared to foster a discussion about traumatic events and systemic issues like police brutality, racial violence, and mass shootings, to allow students to develop critical thinking and assess why these tragedies are prevalent in the United States, according to three experts Education Week spoke to.
“There has been a history that has manifested itself in almost a collective consciousness that the Black community has around law enforcement, and that has caused a great deal of trauma,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), which advances policies and institutional actions that promote racial equity.
“If we are to help young people move past that, we have to be intentional about having conversations about that history and even more important, elevate the discussion beyond police officers or … law enforcement towards a deeper understanding of the structural injustices that continue to affect the Black community.”
Those are already daunting discussions many teachers may not be prepared for. And over the past two years, 18 states have passed laws restricting certain lessons and classroom conversations about race and racism, many including language banning any lessons that can make students “feel guilt or anguish because of their race.” Because of the vague nature of these laws, some teachers in these states describe a chilling effect on classroom conversations about race, which includes current events.
Here’s why educators should talk to students about police violence and Nichols.
It’s important to start classroom discussions early
Teachers should address these issues early, although details of the violence should be left out of elementary school classes, Smith said. Instead, classroom conversations at that level should focus on the role of law enforcement in society, why there are police officers, and what they’re expected to do.
“I’m not a believer in teaching young children early on about police brutality, even though on some occasions, these young people are experiencing those challenges every day in underinvested communities,” he said.
“With that being said, I do think that there is a need for some level or some type of law enforcement and I think it’s important for young people to understand and learn about the best of law enforcement and its responsibility to protect and serve all people.”
For middle school and older students, Smith said it’s important to help students begin to understand the longstanding challenges of policing in America, and how systemic racism plays a part in what happened to Nichols, and other Black people killed by police.
“That’s part of the pedagogical process is to have kids examine these types of events through human behavior and human choices,” said Steve Becton, Chief Officer of Equity, Inclusion & Belonging at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that “uses lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate,” according to its website.
“What happened with Tyre was a series of choices that people made. What if people had made different choices? And what drove the choices that they made?” he said.
“That’s an effective way for students to unpack an event like this and bring their own sort of critical lens to it.”
Following Tyre Nichols’ killing, discuss racism as a system of power
A majority of the police violence against Black people, at least since 2015, has been at the hands of white police officers, according to an NPR investigation. But in Nichols’ case, the five officers that beat him were Black, while the officer that stopped his car and pulled him out of it was white, but he wasn’t involved in the beating. He was eventually fired by the Memphis police department in relation to the Nichols killing.
“The fact that the police [officers] were Black begs a question of what are the structures that create these kinds of incidents that are not about the individual skin color of the police officers, but about the culture of policing,” Becton, from Facing History and Ourselves, said.
“That can be an amazing conversation in the class,” Becton said.
Students should be taught that racism is a system about power, Smith from PSE said. And that system creates a hierarchy which allows Black police officers to have power over an unarmed Black man, he said.
“Racism is less about color than it is about power,” he said. “And I think that is something that young kids should be taught about.”
Teachers need to prepare for these conversations to come up
Before teachers can have a conversation about systemic racism and police violence, they need to gauge how comfortable they are with talking about those topics, what kind of discussions their students are prepared to have, both based on their age and other factors, and be prepared because these discussions can happen spontaneously in any classroom, according to David Brown, an assistant professor of instruction at Temple University.
“A teacher that signs up to teach French, for example, maybe is like ‘I don’t want to touch that because I do not feel equipped to,’ that’s going to be an educated choice,” Brown said.
“It could even be dangerous for someone to try to wade into those waters who isn’t ready to swim. That can be dangerous for them as instructors, and even more so be harmful for the students and someone who is still kind of grappling with it.”
In states with legislation restricting lessons on racism, it can help to lean on professional networks, such as unions, and resources that an organization offers, Brown said, such as counseling or professional development for teachers wanting to talk about race, police violence, or the intersection of the two.
“Nichols is yet another catalyst for better conversations, and I’m sad to say that it won’t be the last one,” Brown said.
“I think even with the tragedy, it can be a great opportunity to move the conversation forward. Because that’s what desperately needs to happen.”