In the final days of a disrupted and tense school year, teachers, administrators and students, forced apart by the coronavirus, are working to process emotions and spark change following the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
They’ve mourned and debated the events over Zoom, unable to comfort or challenge one another in person. They’ve begun plotting policy changes aimed at dismantling inequities in schools. And from coast to coast, students have joined in — and sometimes led — protests, without year-end testing and other pressures typical of spring.
Predictably, some schools have been forced to confront racism by their own staff and students. In a school near Tacoma, Wash., a wrestling coach was fired after posting a photo of himself with another person’s knee on his neck and the words “Not dead yet.” A Michigan school board voted to fire its superintendent following a Facebook comment partially blaming Floyd for winding up in custody. And in rural Colorado, a student posted on Instagram a photo of a student kneeling on what looks like a young black cow’s neck, with a caption that included the name “George” and the hashtag #Icantbreathe.
But in much of the country, teachers and students are pushing what have been seen as uncomfortable conversations to the front of their virtual classrooms.
Nubia Gerima-Rogers is a black teacher in the Black Studies Academy at the District’s Dunbar High School. When she noticed students posting on Instagram about the protests unfolding in the city, she offered to take them to a demonstration outside the White House.
“As an educator, one of your roles is to dismantle inequities,” she said later. “This is our work.”
'Not the same'
It was, for many teachers, the ultimate teachable moment. So as the protests began to swell, their first instinct was to create space for a conversation.
Eden Buba, a teacher in Alexandria, Va., knows what she would have done in a normal year: push the chairs into a circle and lead a face-to-face discussion with her ninth- and 10th-graders. She tried it by Zoom. A half-dozen students joined, but many kept their cameras off, their squares dark.
“It’s not the same,” said Buba, who is black. “But I know my students need to talk about this.”
At California’s Berkeley High School, Alice Bynam, who teaches ethnic and gender studies, helped organize a virtual conversation about race and inequity. The group of 20 students began together. Then the white students, about half the group, separated into one digital “room,” and the students of color into another.
The white students talked about participating in protests during the pandemic and how to support black students without overstepping. Black students spoke about their frustration that institutional racism doesn’t end, despite protest after protest.
When they came back together, the white students mostly deferred to their black peers. One black student said that if white people don’t speak up against racism, they are contributing to the problem.
“There was some rawness,” said Bynam, who is white.
Dwayne Reed, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders in the Chicago Public School system, said it’s hard to have these conversations remotely. In person, he can read a student’s body language and know when a smile or joke will land as intended.
Nonetheless, Reed, who is black, is helping his students, who are nearly all black, reflect on the moment and consider new points of view. He hears students talk about looting, with the rationale, “We need to get ours,” he said.
“I will play devil’s advocate and say, ‘What about the elderly grandmother who needs the meds that you just ransacked? What happens to them?’ ” he said. “‘Now they are dead or sick. You just did that to XYZ’s grandma. What do you think now?’ ”
It’s different for Patrick Larkin, an assistant superintendent for Burlington Public Schools, outside Boston, where nearly two-thirds of students are white and only about 6 percent are black. There are no black teachers or administrators in the district, he said.
In Larkin’s district, some parents balk at the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Some people are offended if you say ‘white privilege.’ ”
Last week, “Black Lives Matter” appeared in chalk on the playground at one of Larkin’s schools. The principal called, worried about potentially negative reactions from the neighborhood. Larkin told him to leave it.
Come fall, he said, he hopes to offer anti-racism training for staff. But he said he worries that the urgency felt today by many will melt away. “If this doesn’t give us the momentum,” he said, “I’m not sure what will, to be honest.”
Change on campus
In the days since Floyd’s death, the protests have fueled some immediate policy changes. Minneapolis Public Schools ended its contract with the city’s police department. Other districts followed.
“Are they asking themselves who’s in the robotics club? Who’s in the Model U.N.?” said King, who is now the president of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group.
“I’m hopeful that this moment will be different,” he said, pointing to the broad cross-section of Americans taking to the streets and engaged in probing discussions in recent days. “I also am worried we may again have a moment of attention and then not have real change.”
In California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond responded by pushing for implicit-bias training for the state’s educators. Last week, he announced that the state had received a half-million-dollar grant to train employees and create guidance for districts. He also wants schools and districts to reconsider how they discipline students and redouble efforts to create an ethnic studies curriculum.
“This grew out of my own sense of feeling a little helpless” after Floyd’s death, said Thurmond, who is black. “I couldn’t make sense of how a man could be killed this way.”
Eric Juli, the white principal of Shaker Heights High School outside Cleveland, isn’t pitching a policy as much as rethinking his own role in confronting racial violence.
On May 31, anti-police and anti-America messages were found graffitied on the doors of his diverse school. That day, Juli wrote a letter lamenting that he had not spoken out when black people died at the hands of police.
“Shaker Heights High School is not yet an anti-racist school. And defining our school as clearly and explicitly anti-racist does not start with any of you,” Juli wrote. “It starts with me.” “If I had spent the year being publicly and explicitly anti-racist, then maybe we wouldn’t have been graffitied last night. And I know that I can do better.”
The street as a classroom
As the protests spread from Minneapolis across the country, students and educators found their own ways be heard.
At a Seattle high school, a student-planned demonstration drew about 2,000 people to a car protest, with drivers honking as they approached the school and others protesting on bikes and on foot. “It was a really powerful moment because we were all dealing with sadness and grief,” said William Jackson, the incoming principal of Nathan Hale High School.
In Louisville, Matthew Kaufmann, the 2020 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year, who is white, joined his students in protest on May 31. Some were arrested — for dubious reasons, he said. He plans to spend the summer working on children’s books about protest, the coronavirus and white privilege, with the goal of helping people to “embrace the superpowers of compassion and kindness.”
In the District, America’s protest capital, skipping Zoom school was of no concern: Officials had ended the academic year three weeks early, as many schools struggled with low attendance. Getting students access to virtual learning tools was difficult, and their neighborhoods were being ravaged by the virus and its economic fallout.
So, students were naturally drawn to the action.
At one D.C. middle school, officials knew their students would go; the concern was that they find themselves in trouble, especially as some protests turned violent. So Kathryn Procope, head of school at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, wrote to families, stressing the difference between protest and lawbreaking.
“You have students who have been distance learning and away from their friends since March and here’s an opportunity to, ‘Oh, let’s gather downtown and let’s get involved in some mayhem,’ ” she said.
At Dunbar High School, the Academy of Black Studies aims to teach students how to be community activists. Local leaders of Black Lives Matter had visited campus in February. Before school ended, Gerima-Rogers talked to her students about Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old shot to death after being pursued by two white men as he jogged. There was little question they would want in at this moment.
Some were nervous to attend the protests, scared they would erupt in violence. Others wanted to attend but had parents who were uneasy. Gerima-Rogers decided to take them herself, to a daytime protest near the White House. One of her students, Gary Murray, was pepper sprayed as another protester squabbled with law enforcement, Gerima-Rogers said. But Murray kept going, at one point leading hundreds of others up 14th Street NW, holding a megaphone and chanting, “No justice! No peace!”
Afterward, the teacher got a text from her student: “I think this is literally my passion as a person.”
Hannah Natanson and Donna St. George contributed to this report.