November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

In Charlottesville, a Back-to-School Like No Other

In Charlottesville, people walk toward a street memorial for Heather Heyer. Photo courtesy of Pam Moran

“We didn’t create this situation, but we’re going to have to work with our children to own it as educators.”

That’s how Pam Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle (VA) County Public Schools, approached preparing her staff to head back to school shortly following the deadly clash between white supremacist groups and counterprotestors in Charlottesville.

On Saturday, August 12, a Unite the Right rally attracted hundreds of white nationalists to the college town. Many carried Confederate flags or swastikas. Antifascist groups and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement along with clergy members and local residents led a counterprotest.

After violent skirmishes escalated, police called the gathering an unlawful assembly. Rallygoers began to leave the area when a car barreled through a group of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Rallygoer James Alex Fields Jr. has been charged with second-degree murder in Heyer’s death. That evening, a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the rally crashed killing 48-year-old Lt. H. Jay Cullen and 40-year-old Berke M.M. Bates.

IdaMae Craddock, librarian at the town’s Burley Middle School, watched it all unfold from her home in Charlottesville. “We could see the helicopters,” Craddock says. “There were sirens screaming up and down the road all day long. I was glued to the TV.”

Craddock, who has lived in Charlottesville for 20 years, struggled to make her young daughter understand why it was best for them to remain inside.

“It was very scary,” Craddock says. “My daughter was angry in the morning because I wouldn’t let her outside. That was hard to explain to somebody who’s six, and thinks that everybody in the world is good and kind.”

Craddock and other school employees were set to return to work just two days after the rally to prepare for school. On that first day back, the Charlottesville City and Albemarle County School superintendents, along with their respective school board chairs, issued a joint statement calling the events of the weekend “tragic beyond words.” The statement also pointed out that educators have a responsibility to model “American ideals in their work every day.”

Charlottesville City School Board chair Juandiego Wade

Juandiego Wade, chair of the Charlottesville City School Board, says the statement was designed to help put students at ease.

“I know that they’re scared, that their parents are scared,” Wade says. “We felt that we had to do something to reassure the students, the staff, the community—that we’re here for them.” Charlottesville schools will also have extra counselors available when school start on Wednesday.

Moran reached out to her principals and department leaders ahead of school staff returning to work on Monday to let them know that the first day couldn’t be business as usual. The second day back, she met with all the county school librarians to discuss their important role in helping the community heal.

Melissa Techman, a school librarian at Western Albemarle High School in Crozet, VA, says that meeting with the superintendent was extremely helpful. She and her colleagues focused on three things:

Albemarle school librarians and diversity resource teachers plan for the start of school. #CharlottesvilleCurriculum is a key focus for supporting teachers. Photo courtesy of Pam Moran

“How can we support our students, what kind of resources can we offer them, [and] who are our allies?” she says. “We want to hit the ground running with ways to address this and ways to help teachers.”

Resources and support

Many librarians are looking to resources made available through the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum that sprang up on Twitter during the weekend of the rally. Albemarle County also employs full-time diversity resource teachers who help other educators make sense of incidents involving issues of diversity and provide age-appropriate materials for students.

Craddock says she reached out to other librarians online for support. On the Library Think Tank on Facebook, she encountered librarians from Ferguson, MO, another area that experienced violent demonstrations, after the police killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

They gave her tips about how to approach the first day back. A display she made, asking “why now, why here?,” sprang from discussions with the Ferguson librarians, some of whom had created similar ones following the unrest there.

“I feel like I never ever wanted to have anything in common with the Ferguson librarians, [and] I never thought I would,” Craddock says.

School librarian IdaMae Craddock created this display after consulting with librarians in Ferguson, MO. Photo by IdaMae Craddock

Her display also includes books about racism, the rise of Hitler, and the history of Charlottesville, which Craddock and others admit is troublesome where race is concerned.

“The reason my school was built in the 50s was so that [the city] would be able to continue to segregate schools,” Craddock says. “If they had a good enough black high school, which is Burley’s history, they wouldn’t have to integrate schools. I don’t want to minimize Charlottesville’s racial history. It’s very long and difficult.”

Moran notes that the town’s prestigious university, the University of Virginia, was built by enslaved people. Its founder, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, and Moran describes the area as a “plantation-built community.”

But she and others stress that’s not the Charlottesville of today. Some describe the city as a close-knit liberal enclave and certainly not a place that would welcome white supremacists.

Still, Moran has rallied widespread support for students returning to school Wednesday. “Our school counselors and psychologists are going to be available to support families and students as needed, as well as staff,” she says. “We also are partnering with mental health professionals at UVA to work with us on ongoing support through parent organizations and schools.” In addition to resources from the school’s community engagement office, librarians have curated web materials tailored to different ages, she adds.

Defining equality

Western Albemarle High School senior Ryan Beard shoots footage for a “We are Family” video for the first day of school. Photo courtesy of Melissa Techman

Techman says the rally has forced her to think more about racial issues and what it means to have true equality.

“I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about how we can’t ignore white privilege,” she says. “We can’t ignore the economic backdrop and how the system works to support certain groups and deny others. It’s not like all of a sudden I had all of these new ideas. It was more like, well, now we’ve got even more things to talk about, and we owe [it] to our students and to our nation to have these conversations.”

“We do have to remain politically objective per our policy as educators,” Moran adds. “But at the same time, we also have to hold ourselves responsible for making sure that our kids learn the difference between right and wrong, the difference between hate speech and free speech.”

Techman, however, doesn’t think school leaders expect her to be neutral when discussing the violence that tore through their town.

“We talked about the necessity to be objective and to be resources, but at the same time we’re not neutral,” she says. “I am very, very clear about the fact that there is no room in this country for Nazism. The idea that librarians would be totally neutral—that’s not exactly what we’re talking about.”

Craddock says that by providing good sources of information, librarians have an opportunity to encourage young people to embrace diversity and inclusiveness rather than hate. Some of her students know people who participated in the rally or the counter-protest. Some may even be trying on the identity of a white supremacist. But she believes most will be looking for answers.

“They don’t know where they are on these issues yet,” she says. “Helping them ask questions and get solid, reliable, factual answers, that’s what we do. We’re librarians.”

Wade is more willing to delve into politics, but the school board chair stresses that he’s only speaking for himself. He believes that President Trump hasn’t helped the community as much as he could have.

“The healing has started, but it’s going to be slow. I don’t think we have good, strong leadership at the top, and we’re feeling the impact of it.”

Moran hopes the incident will bring the community together and show students what their district values.

“We’ve just become one in a series of communities that have experienced some significant crisis and disruption to the fabric of a community,” she says. “If there’s any good that comes from this, it’s that people all over this country are going to step up and say, we will not stand for this kind of behavior as a nation. We’re going to really take it on, and I think that starts with education.”

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Marva Hinton About Marva Hinton

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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  1. IdaMae Craddock says:

    I want to thank the librarian community in total and the librarians from Ferguson, MO specifically for their help, support, and advice while we navigate this crisis. Hugs to you all.

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