The subject arose in Jay Briar's seventh-grade history class in Bethesda during a discussion of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what the United Nations document says about torture and the treatment of prisoners.
Mary J. Bunk's middle school students in Orlando debated the topic during their daily newspaper-reading session.
Chris Gonzalez, who was stationed in Iraq last year as a member of the Marine Corps Reserves, raised the issue in his Laurel classroom to let students vent about the disturbing images they had seen in newspapers and on TV.
For these teachers and others, the revelations that some American soldiers abused detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison have created what's known as "a teachable moment" -- an unexpected event that is too important to ignore, even as the school year winds down and much required material remains to be covered.
"Our job is to help make good citizens," said Mike Radow, co-chairman of the social studies department at Mercer Island High School in Washington state. "What that means is helping students become aware citizens who will be informed voters and who will make noise if they are not happy about something. Of course we will talk about it."
But the military scandal, documented in sexually graphic and violent photographs, is presenting teachers with as delicate a balancing act as many can remember. Today's pervasive media mean that many children come to school having seen the photographs out of Iraq, as well as a recent videotape of American civilian Nicholas Berg being beheaded by hooded members of an Islamic militant group. Other students, however, have been sheltered from the news by their parents.
So educators must decide whether, and how, to allow classroom discussions. There are concerns, at least in public schools, about injecting moral judgments into any lesson. And there's the question of whether sexually explicit images are too embarrassing for teachers and students to talk about.
Some schools have opted to steer clear. At Whittier Elementary in Frederick, a community with a large number of military families, counselor Heather Quill said the issue has been off-limits. "Our staff and parents immediately put a 'protective shield' around negative incidents such as this," she said, "because it is far beyond our children's maturity."
"We don't live in a fairy tale," Quill said. "They understand about the deaths in Iraq and the difficulties between the U.S. and the people [there]. We don't try to shield them from reality. But we do try to filter information to what they are capable of handling."
Others educators said there simply is no time to stray from the curriculum.
"I have spoken with our principals and realize that they are heavy into the schedule for AP [Advanced Placement] examinations and [state] tests," said Margee Walsh, executive director for secondary programs for Arlington County public schools. "While the Iraqi news is vitally important, I cannot add more to their plate now."
The frequent media display of the prison pictures is exactly why some educators and psychologists say it is important that students are given a way to put in context the events many cannot avoid. "Kids should be encouraged to discuss this in the school setting," said Marilyn Benoit, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "We are talking about something that has to do with developing a moral conscience. . . . It should be discussed even in kindergarten, because kids are seeing these images."
The key is talking to students at their developmental level, said Kenneth Dodge, director of Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy. Children in kindergarten crave a sense of assurance and security, he said; 9-year-olds need a sense of right and wrong; those 13 and older search for a moral compass to arrive at their own judgments. Without a lot of discussion about the atrocities they see through the media, Dodge said, children can develop a "very simple-minded sense of morality, where everything you do is okay as long as you get away with it."
Some students said that they have wanted to talk about the Iraq prison scandal but that the topic hasn't come up at their schools. Masha Lafen, 10, a fifth-grader at Pine Crest Elementary School in Montgomery County, said kids are talking about it among themselves.
Meanwhile, at least three teachers at a California school -- Villa Park High in Orange County, south of Los Angeles -- were placed on paid leave last week, allegedly for allowing students to watch the videotape of Berg's beheading, although not requiring them to do so, the Associated Press reported. A similar incident happened at a suburban San Diego high school.
Diamond Brooks, 12, a sixth-grader at Murray Hills Middle School in Howard County, said she appreciated the chance to express her opinions in class. "We need to know what is going on in Iraq and what they [the soldiers] are trying to accomplish there," she said. "We need to know when things are going wrong, too."
Her social studies teacher, Gonzalez, returned to teaching in November after serving for eight months in Iraq. He mentioned the events at Abu Ghraib prison during a portion of his class that he calls "Interesting Info," a time when he discusses topics including music, movies and current events.
He said he explained what happened without getting "too deep into it" and then let the students talk. "I always tell them to question what they see and read, because it is not always 100 percent accurate. . . . A lot of them were saying how wrong it was to degrade people and torture people. I talked a little bit about how it was kind of an information-getting technique and did that change their minds? And they said, 'No, it was still wrong.' "
Briar, who teaches at the private Norwood School in Bethesda, said his students voiced varied opinions. Some decried the abuse by American soldiers; others were concerned that an apology had not been issued by those responsible for the beheading of Berg.
Mary Ellen Dakin, a world literature and English composition teacher at Revere High School in Massachusetts, said she delved into the subject Friday in her sophomore classes by having students read about and discuss the concept of honor. Dakin said one student, Alicia Ago, wanted to know: "Who are these people? The people in the photos?"
When Dakin explained that they were detainees in Iraqi jails, Ago "wanted to know what they had done to be put into prison, and I said I wasn't sure; perhaps some had committed crimes," Dakin said. (A report by the International Committee for the Red Cross in February estimated that 70 to 90 percent of the detainees were arrested by mistake.)
"This seemed to reassure her that they deserved these punishments," Dakin said, "because she turned to a friend and said, 'So there. . . .' "
But Dakin recalled that Ago's friend, Kellyann Soye, said to the whole class: "I don't care what they did. We're supposed to be better than them, better than the people who hurt us, better than the people who cut off heads like that poor guy."
There was more discussion, plenty of additional questions. "None of us knew the answers," Dakin said.