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No one has been held accountable for the killing of Breonna Taylor, another innocent victim of police, who shot her at least five times in the hallway of her home during the disastrous execution of a search warrant.
A grand jury declined to indict the two police officers who killed Taylor, 26, in her Louisville apartment, finding they had acted in self-defense after one was shot by Taylor’s boyfriend, who stated he did not know the men breaking into the apartment after midnight were police officers. A third officer, Brett Hankison, was fired in June for shooting into the apartments in Taylor’s building, but only charged last week with a lesser offense of first degree wanton endangerment. The residents of those apartments were white, according to an attorney for the Taylor family.
Educators need to encourage students to say their own names when society doesn’t.
If not for Black Lives Matter, Taylor’s case probably would not have received national attention. BLM activists have rallied behind the social media hashtag #sayhername to bring attention to the Black women victims of “racist police violence,” whose stories are often untold and typically don’t make national headlines.
The grand jury decision in Louisville is just one more brutal reminder that Black women are not protected by law or the police in this racist, patriarchal society. This is why I was not surprised by the outcome, only disheartened and dejected. The pall of doubt and cynicism weighs heavy on many, and I often worry that it will extinguish even the hope for a society in which justice is extended to Black people.
But this is also an important teaching moment that schools and educators must seize if they take their job of preparing future citizens seriously.
The existential threat of a broken criminal justice system robs Black people of our dignity, aspirations and worth. It also undermines the future of our country. If law enforcement and justice remain a service for white people, and the law doesn’t apply to police officers who take innocent lives, if Black women and girls are not protected, there can be no real democracy.
Laws — and the system of enforcing them — that uphold immorality and injustice must change. That’s where our education system comes in. Schools have a role in changing how people see justice and in developing morally sound leaders who can dismantle unjust laws.
The poet Seamus Heaney once said in an interview, “If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.”
Teachers must help their students (and themselves) find the words to reclaim the humanity a racist society wants to deny them and find the words to create a path towards structural change. Language arts and history teachers often resort to the “Great Books” to help students navigate their lives. But sometimes teaching a Shakespearean tragedy simply won’t do when you’re confronted with real ones every day.
That means giving students access to books like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “We Want to Do More Than Survive”by Bettina Love, as well as resources like the New York Times’ 1619 Project, that give meaning to the current context and prepare students to navigate and change it.
It also means empowering students to write their own stories.
As school leaders search for a response to the current reckoning over American racism, they don’t have to stray far from what they do every day — teach.
This is why I’m encouraged by an effort of a former high school classmate, Chuck Herring, who is the diversity, equity and inclusion director in South Fayette Township School District, outside of Pittsburgh. Herring’s students formed the organization SHOUT, Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment, which aims to make schools culturally responsive, safe spaces for all students, faculty and staff. The organization has written a book (not yet titled), with the goal of helping students describe the world and grapple with the reality that society still doesn’t recognize Black lives.
Herring shared some excerpts with me.
“A lot of people in the Afro-Latino and African-American communities were angry, frightened, confused, and fired up,” writes student Anyce Rivera, describing why she started organizing under SHOUT.
Another student, Anastasija Gupta, writes about how she responded to an incident in which a peer was called the N-word. “I don’t talk to anyone on the way home. I just stare out the window,” Gupta writes. “A hurricane of emotions stirs inside of me. Rage, hurt, confusion, and disgust, pile up and threaten to spill out.”
These are the kinds of words students must find to express their pain. Words like these — rage, hurt, confusion, disgust, anger, fright and confusion — should be internalized by the rest of us as a response to racism.
As school leaders search for a response to the current reckoning over American racism, they don’t have to stray far from what they do every day — teach. While teachers are told not to impose their political views on students, they have a moral obligation to protect students. Silence won’t protect kids; it encourages acceptance of the devaluation of life itself.
Educators need to encourage students to say their own names when society doesn’t. They need to encourage them to write about what’s happening around them, and to fight to make sure the next generation of history books includes their stories.
An educator’s job is to help children become the authors of their own lives. And to make sure they know that those lives matter.
This story about teaching about Breonna Taylor was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.