November 17, 2017

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Schools Look To Talk Race, Violence, and Tolerance with Students

Leah Bass-Baylis has had “that talk,” she says, with her two grown sons, about driving as African American men. Although she says they are both out of the house, she still worries about them. But she knows she can’t have the same conversation with the K–5 students at Carlos Santana Arts Academy in North Hills, CA, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where she’s been principal since the school opened seven years ago.

“Sometimes we talk about it in parent meetings, and it’s something I am grappling with now,” she says. “But these are elementary school children, and you don’t want them afraid of the world they’re living in.”

Bass-Baylis is just one of thousands of educators around the country who are looking for ways to address issues of violence, race, guns, and tolerance to their students as wave after wave of shootings involving police—many as victims—break the news. With school set to start in some states this month, school districts and teachers are looking for the best way to support students who have questions—and concerns.

NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Lenox315

Carmen Farina
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Lenox315

For Carmen Farina, superintendent of New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), that begins by starting a conversation—among parents as well as educators—and encouraging teachers and principals to contact her with ideas on how to foster more community among students and families.

“We must not avoid these tough conversations,” says Farina in a recent statement. “They are necessary if we hope to build a just society for all.”

To that end, Farina wants students to have a safe space where they can open up about fears, ask questions, and be reassured about the world around them. The DOE is also launching a new social studies curriculum called Perspectives for a Diverse America, developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project.

More than 40,000 educators have registered to use the lessons from that program. However, there is more, and heavy, adoption in five specific states, which include New York, Illinois, California, Florida, and Texas, says a spokesperson with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While not launching a new social studies program, LAUSD did adopt a system called Restorative Justice, meant to be used by all schools in 2020. Part of LAUSD’s discipline policy, Restorative Justice is nonetheless also focused on community-building. Bass-Baylis uses the program at her school. So, too, does Santa Monica High School (known as Samohi), says Gail Pinsker, community and public relations officer for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).

000 How It Went DownThe Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, How It Went Down, about a community affected by the shooting death of a 16-year-old young man, was selected for its literary merits, use of different perspectives, narrative style, and for the current events it mirrored. The novel will continue to be taught this coming school year.

“In the 11th and 12th grades, we’ll also use the book as a springboard—not only for discussion of current events but also to explore postmodern fiction, archetypal characters, and the bias and rhetoric various characters display and evoke,” says Jennifer Pust, English department chair for Samohi.

Other school districts are handing the reins to students, allowing them to play an upfront role in conversations about the violence they see around them. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) recently held a discussion, which went live on Facebook, with teens, OUSD chief of police Jeff Godown, and OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson.

The police chief may not be visiting at Bass-Baylis’ school, but she still looks for ways to give her young students a voice, so they can express their concerns in a way that makes sense to them. Whether that means penning songs about subjects that concern them and singing them in an assembly, Bass-Baylis believes strongly that her students must be informed, but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them so they can continue to grow—and to be excited and empowered to move forward in their lives.

“I don’t know that it serves a purpose for them to be afraid, but you want them to be aware,” she says. “These kids are our future. They can make a difference.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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