By Rob Schroeder
“The situation isn’t peaceful; a young person was murdered. We can’t teach a lesson that says everything will be fine.”
The U.S. Department of Justice’s report on policing in Ferguson, Mo. is a clear illustration that some Americans are living in essentially a different country from their compatriots a town or two away. Consider these stats that would be comical if they were not so cruelly true:
-In Ferguson, 95 percent of “manner of walking” citations and arrests were issued to Black residents;
-residents, primarily Black, were fined as much as $500 for putting garbage cans out on the wrong day or on the wrong side of the street;
-Black drivers were searched at traffic stops at twice the rate of White drivers, while white drivers were twice as likely to possess contraband.
Why the disparities? According to the report, Ferguson’s overwhelmingly White police said their actions were needed because “certain segments” of the population pervasively lacked “personal responsibility.”
The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson served as a catalyst to expose the stark judicial divide that exists in White and non-White communities across the country, a gap undoubtedly familiar to countless Black and Latino youth and adults throughout Chicago who have experienced this biased approach to policing and justice.
When Chicago’s neighborhoods erupted in November 2015 at the release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder at the hands of a White Chicago police officer, educators across the city faced the challenge of addressing Laquan’s death with students holding their own tales of injustice to tell.
When Chicago Public Schools introduced a set of teacher guidelines for addressing the Laquan McDonald killing in class, College of Education faculty and students responded with their own teaching ideas.
How well equipped are urban school districts to address issues of systemic violence and bias? CPS’ response to the McDonald shooting serves as a test case.
In late November, over the Thanksgiving holiday break, CPS released a teaching toolkit on the McDonald shooting to teachers in anticipation of the video release the next week. Anticipating many students would have viewed the video, the district said the toolkit “is designed to be an educational tool and by no means an endorsement of any opinions…[and] is designed to help guide a difficult conversation.”
The toolkit troubled faculty and students at the College. Josh Radinsky, PhD, associate professor of curriculum and instruction; Danny Martin, PhD, professor of curriculum and instruction; David Stovall, PhD, professor of educational policy studies, and Cecily Relucio Hensler, PhD Curriculum Studies student, analyzed the toolkit and found loose interpretations of the historical accounting of events:
-The CPS account mirrored the account given by City and police department officials: it used the word immediately (twice) and the phrase several days later to suggest a timely investigation;
-The toolkit emphasized the officer was charged with first degree murder, as if to imply an aggressive prosecution of the case.
Their analysis also highlighted key storylines missing from the toolkit:
-The toolkit failed to account for the fact that officers at the scene dispersed witnesses and failed to take statements from those who may have provided different accounts;
-There was no mention that the video contradicted police testimony, nor that charges were not brought until the judge ordered the video’s release against the police department’s wishes;
-The toolkit did not mention widespread demand for the resignation of the State’s Attorney, Chicago Police Chief and Mayor Rahm Emanuel;
-There was no mention that the local and national press had critiqued the delay in releasing the video as timed to benefit Emanuel’s re-election campaign.
“The toolkit highlighted the conflict of interest between mayoral control of the district and the needs of Chicago’s children,” Radinsky said.
Martin, Radinsky, Relucio Hensler and Stovall also objected to CPS’ stated learning goals for the toolkit. While CPS asked teachers to “give students a safe outlet for expressing their thoughts without arguing about the incident,” the authors ask why teachers should suppress student reactions, especially when logical reactions are anger, grief, distress, confusion or fatigue. Other CPS suggestions included:
“Have students imagine the best possible outcome.”
The best possible outcome of what, and for whom? The authors argue this focus simply on students “imagining” outcomes does not suggest much faith in the ability and agency of young people, and misses the fact that many students are already actively engaged in demanding and working towards real social change.
“Avoid further perpetuation of the fear and hatred of law enforcement that these incidents encourage.”
Rather, the authors say teachers need ideas for how to help children of all ages process these feelings, and to understand the causes of these terrifying and enraging experiences; also, students should play a role in demanding transparency and accountability as participants in a democratic society.
“Help students to consider the tools for civil protest that are in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the spirit of brotherhood.”
The authors say they find it puzzling that CPS looks backward a half century for a model of protest in response to oppressive forces and conditions, when powerful models of peaceful protest for social change are being organized right now, led by young people of color all over the country, and especially here in Chicago.
“Help students to examine the role that race, class, privilege and stereotyping play,s not just in this incident but in our society.”
The authors agree these are important concepts, but argue that the concept of systemic racism can give students a way to understand racism in its historical context, and to interrogate the relationship racism has to their lives.
“Teachers need to help students go beyond ‘good guys and bad guys’ or ‘a few bad apples’ in understanding racism,” Radinsky said. “Mass incarceration and police violence affect children’s lives directly, and teachers need support for teaching about systemic racism.”
CPS’ Laquan McDonald toolkit and the College’s response collided in the hands of one second-grader.
While student-teaching at Drummond Elementary in Chicago’s northwest-side Bucktown neighborhood, Agnieszka Karoluk, MEd Early Childhood Education ‘16, and her mentor teacher had reviewed an edition of Chicago Union Teacher magazine, a publication of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, with a cover story on “Teaching Laquan McDonald in Context.”
Seeing the striking image of Laquan McDonald in his graduation gown with bullet holes superimposed, a youngster fished the magazine out of a recycling bin and began reading.
Karoluk and her mentor teacher sat down with him and explained the Laquan McDonald shooting. Off he went to share the message with his second and third-grade friends.
The magazine went back in the recycling bin, but the memory of Laquan did not. Two months later, when Karoluk and her mentor teacher were leading a month long “Black History ABC’s” lesson, the boy and his friends approached her and asked if the class could focus on L for Laquan McDonald.
“There’s an assumption that kids like this are too young to talk about these issues,” Karoluk said. “People underestimate young children; we know from research that kids as young as three and four already recognize race and gender in each other, so we need to talk about these issues.”
The same group of students who approached her about the letter L lesson led the class discussion. Karoluk guided their path forward toward a larger discussion of systemic racism; her students wanted to focus on the fact that Laquan was murdered by a White police officer, but Karoluk and her mentor-teacher wanted students to learn about how the killing was not an isolated event.
Karoluk modeled her approach on a lesson she viewed on Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson. She constructed a poster with a photo of Laquan McDonald and three random people across the top; students then responded with how they would respond to this collection of individuals from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds. As expected, students responded universally with positive messages. And as expected, when Karoluk relayed Laquan’s story to her students, they were duly shocked.
The original group of students who asked for the Laquan lesson taught a biography of Laquan’s life and started a conversation that delved into how people in Chicago protested the shooting, the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1960s Civil Rights era.
“I was surprised that many of them didn’t focus too much on the shooting itself but on the lesson behind it, why we should treat everyone fairly,” Karoluk said. “Their understanding of police officers in Chicago is that they are supposed to catch bad guys and protect us, so that was a really difficult conversation: not everyone thinks you like you guys, some people think they are better because of their skin color.”
The police’s role in Laquan’s death was particularly poignant because one of Karoluk’s students is the daughter of a Chicago police officer. Karoluk says she focused on ensuring the student could voice her opinion just as other students did.
Designing this lesson was a challenge, Karoluk says, because teaching materials and resources are hard to find for early childhood classrooms. She says opportunities to bring controversial current events into the classroom are key because even at a young age, students need to learn how to argue in respectful ways and understand that not everyone will reach agreement.
“There was such emphasis [from the CPS approach] on how can we come to a peaceful solution to this, to make sure students don’t argue,” Karoluk said. “I think that’s really inauthentic and actually offensive to children. The situation isn’t peaceful; a young person was murdered. We can’t teach a lesson that says everything will be fine.”
Putting together a lesson on a controversial subject is no small task; Karoluk says she and her mentor-teacher labored over the creation of the lesson, particularly mindful of the reaction of parents.
How can teachers best prepare for these situations? The College’s Nicole Nguyen, PhD, assistant professor of educational policy studies, penned an op-ed for Education Week magazine entitled “Education Scholars: Challenging Racial Injustice Begins With Us,” issuing a clarion call for universities, in particular teacher education programs, to take on the responsibility of disrupting the criminalization of Black youth.
“This all goes back to the purpose of education; if you see the purpose as students making sense of the world and transforming that world, then having conversations about race and racism related to police violence and brutality is a critical part of that,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s essay was spurred on by the altercation between Black youth at a pool party in McKinney, Texas and Cpl. David Eric Casebolt. Recognizing police brutality as a node of a larger system of racism and classism, Nguyen argues that punishing wrongdoers only goes so far and says educators need to “tear down the entire tree.”
“Teachers have to make strategic decisions about what they want their classroom to be used for,” Nguyen said. “If you make a decision to teach in an urban school, it is part of your responsibility to work for social transformation.”
Nguyen says schools are well-positioned to take on this responsibility because of their role as community hubs where families, children, community members and educators gather to collaborate and work toward social change. These hubs can be “vibrant public spheres” in which young people act as agents of social change.
Yet, she cautions that while researchers need to assist in creating these public spaces, they must also resist the temptation of shifting all responsibility for social change onto the shoulders of students. To strengthen access and agency for non-dominant youth, Nguyen says researchers need to address the systemic issues of poverty, unemployment and disinvestment, factors that can lead to the criminalization of non-dominant youth. Research focus on mapping the deleterious effects of gentrification, poverty and school closures can bring to the public eye the structural inequities that build an unequal justice system.
There is no denying that schools often contribute to what Nguyen calls “the same racialized and gendered regimes of humiliations, punishments and brutalizations.” She calls on educators and researchers to confront their own racist, gendered, classed and ableist assumptions that shape thinking about non-dominant youth and define the purpose of education.
“This is the public mission of colleges of education: to serve as political allies of the young people in our communities to dismantle systems of violence,” Nguyen wrote. “This mission charges us with building reciprocal community-university partnerships to redress the patterns of injustice we confront daily. Our work begins and ends with this social compact.”