When Violence Strikes, Schools Can Lead

Last week, the country once again found itself embroiled in controversy and tragedy.

When videos emerged in the aftermath of two separate but equally tragic police-involved shootings of African-American men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, a long-simmering national debate about race ignited in protest. Controversy eventually gave way to more violence when, on the evening of July 7, five Dallas police officers were shot and killed during a protest there.

No matter where you live, when tragedies and crises like these grip the national conscience, there will be conversation and debate. Students and parents alike will have questions about the events and they will begin to form their own opinions, either from what they see on the news, or from what they hear in the hallways, at home, or on social media.

As centers of education and community, our schools play an important role in these conversations. When students have questions about tragic events, teachers must be prepared to discuss them openly and with a certain sensitivity. In cases where students are upset or agitated, educators will need to deftly steer potentially hurtful or harmful conversations to a safer, more constructive place.

On his blog, Practical Theory, education advocate Chris Lehmann writes that schools need to understand how these and other issues affect their students, whether they’re directly impacted by them or not. (Note: Lehmann’s post contains strong language and opinions involving race.)

Writes Lehmann: “We have to be part of the solution. We cannot assume that others will deal with this, or think that this isn’t an issue that affects our schools.”

So what can school leaders do?

Guide the dialogue
You might not have a say when it comes to local or national policies. And you probably don’t have answers for community members frustrated by feelings of fear and injustice. But you can provide a constructive and healthy forum for students and parents to discuss many of these issues either in public or private.

Invite your community to an open discussion about race and violence in society. Approach the meeting as you would any school-related crisis. Lead an organized discussion where every community member has the chance to express their fears, their hopes, and pose solutions for the future.

Listen constantly
Not everyone will want to express their views in public. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to express themselves at all.

Continue to listen and to foster a conversation beyond face-to-face community meetings. This might mean actively listening and engaging over social media, phone calls, and via email, among other outlets.

Students and other community members should be empowered to express their concerns in private, and even anonymously. Students who are confused or hurt might not feel comfortable talking about these issues in a public setting. (Read: be sensitive to the different needs of your school community.) You might want to consider an online communication tool or phone hotline to ensure students are allowed to speak freely and openly without fear of embarrassment or recrimination.

Support community support
Schools have a responsibility to the community. But they can’t address these issues on their own.

Look to support groups and volunteer organizations that can provide expert help and guidance when planning these conversations.

Unbiased non-profit groups, government agencies, and other organizations offer lesson plans and speakers to help guide these conversations.

It was civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education.”

What better way to embody these traits, then by helping students express themselves and learn from these events—especially in these uncertain times?

How does your school community help students and families learn about and understand current events? Tell us in the comments.

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