As students living in St. Louis County return to their studies in a new school year, education officials in the area have proposed radically different ways to talk to children about the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager shot dead by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb.
“We just returned from the funeral for Michael … we wanted to get (students) back into a normal routine and help them feel like they were in a safe and caring environment,” Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of public K-12 schools in Jennings – a town just 4 miles from Ferguson – told Al Jazeera on Monday. “We have mental health counseling available at all sites … and various staff members have received mental health training to assist in addressing issues.”
Brown was killed in Ferguson on Aug. 9 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, sparking ongoing protests that have lasted for weeks. Because of the sometimes violent demonstrations in the streets between police and demonstrators, the first day of school for some Ferguson-area students was postponed for more than a week.
But now that the new school year has begun, Anderson said her main goal was to make sure that the students feel safe and welcome.
Edwardsville School District, about 25 miles from Ferguson, has reportedly adopted a different approach. Principals told educators in the district’s middle and high schools to “change the subject and refocus the students” if Ferguson comes up, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported last week.
Some parents have disagreed with that policy, saying that their children have watched the situation unfold on television and that teachers should grasp such teachable moments, the newspaper reported. But the schools’ administrators said they were worried about teachers possibly inserting their own opinions into discussions about Brown, and that is why the topic was banned.
Anderson said her school will actively address the issue with a peaceful, justice-based curriculum aimed to help students build up their own communities.
“Teachers are integrating lessons on equity and justice in classrooms and they are facilitating discussions on the topic to allow students the opportunity to express themselves and their opinions,” Anderson said. “We are promoting peace projects to highlight ways students can peacefully express themselves and build a stronger community.”
A voter registration booth will be set up at one of the high schools soon, and African-American leaders will be visiting with students to talk about nonviolence, Anderson said. Ivy League-educated actor Hill Harper visited with students in Jennings today, she added.
On Monday night several Jennings high school students were set to speak on PBS about equality and justice issues raised by Brown’s killing, Anderson said, adding that making the students feel free to discuss their thoughts and making sure their voices are heard are crucial.