George Floyd killing sparks classroom discussions about race, police brutality

Poster of George Floyd on boarded up Chase Bank building in downtown Oakland on May 31. Floyd's killing by four Minneapolis police officers sparked classroom discussion about race and police brutality in West Contra Costa Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The shock and anger that is rippling throughout the country over the police killing of George Floyd hits home for West Contra Costa Unified — a majority Latino and African American district in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As the district ends instruction this week, teachers described their efforts to give students the opportunity to talk — even if it is just virtually — about their concerns.

Superintendent Matthew Duffy, in a message to the school community Sunday, said Floyd’s death and the killing of other African Americans at the hands of police makes him fear for the district’s students, especially those who are black and brown.

“Our job now — more than ever as educators, mentors, friends and community — is to listen, make space for anger and grief, and ensure that every one of our interactions with our young black people is built on love, humanity, patience and understanding,” Duffy said.

Stege Elementary principal Nicole Ruiz described the situation as “deep, hard and heavy.” She described the personal impact of being a black woman with black family members in local law enforcement, one of whom was assigned to help control a protest in Walnut Creek on Sunday night.

She sent two messages to her students and their families. The first, a quote by Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” And the second message: “I told them we pray you be safe, be part of the change and hold each other tighter and love one another,” she said. “And at the end, I put, ‘#StegeStrong.’”

Stege, located in southeast Richmond near the border with El Cerrito, has a student population that is 51% black and nearly 30% Latino, most low-income. 

Ruiz said she feels fortunate to have teachers on her staff who are “relatively like-minded individuals who want to be a part of the change and who are interested in making sure our students understand that they have a voice.” 

She’s also relieved that school is not in-person now. That’s because conversations about racism and police brutality can be hard, she said, and she finds it difficult not to share her personal feelings with students and create teachable moments for them out of the incidents.

Pinole Valley High School English teacher Dana Schurr posted a video message to her students on Monday addressing Floyd’s death and the protests that have followed. In an interview, Schurr said if she was able to be in the classroom with her students right now, they would be having class-wide discussions about racism as an exercise in critical thinking. She said her Wi-Fi connection isn’t strong enough to conduct a full class with all of her students, so instead she fielded responses from students. 

Teachers from Pinole Valley High School hold up “Black Lives Matter” signs to protest the killing of George Floyd during a staff meeting Monday. (Courtesy of principal Kibby Kleiman)

Schurr urged her students to “push back” against racism however they can, including speaking up if they hear a family member making racist remarks. 

“People are tired of black people getting killed in the streets. That’s the bottom line,” Schurr said in the video. “Don’t let us be more divided by this, please think about what you can do in your own personal life.”

Schurr’s students shared their feelings with her about the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while a police officer restrained him by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, and of the protests that have ensued. They expressed anger over the incident and the racism that still exists.

In their responses, students distinguished between protesters and looters.

“I’ll just say that the violent looters aren’t a part of the movement,” student Nix Tiger sent to Schurr. “There are many videos of non-black people breaking windows while the black protestors beg for them to stop.”

Students were also angered by videos circulating the internet of police moving forcefully against protesters.

“All of these protests have been peaceful right up until the cops showed up. The cops are instigating the violence,” said Sadye Loza Cottle. “I have seen too many videos of protesters, kneeling in silence, literally just sitting and a cop comes up and forcefully tries to walk over them, push them and very aggressively grab them and arrest them for literally no reason.”

Schurr’s class had an essay due this past Tuesday that was assigned earlier in the month. One of her students, junior Camila Cruzavo, got the OK from Schurr on Monday to write about Floyd’s killing.

Cruzavo, in an interview, said she appreciated having the space to express her feelings about the issue, and the essay felt cathartic.

“It made me feel like if you tell your teachers how you feel, they will give you a chance to cry it out instead of feeling like you have nobody to talk to,” Cruzavo said.

In her essay, she talked about how it was “unbelievable that we’re in 2020 and these things are still happening,” she said. “It’s not a land of freedom when things like this are still going on.”

Alondra Ramirez, a senior at Richmond High School, said some of her teachers have discussed the Floyd killing and the protests during their virtual classes.

In her Ethnic Studies class, her teacher Luis Chacon sent video lectures on the history of police brutality and racism in America, she said, as well as critiques on the media coverage of the protests. Ramirez said she has also been given some reflective assignments, where students were questioned about how they can “support their black brothers and sisters” as well as realize their own biases, she said.

“African Americans deserve to live their lives just like everyone else,” Ramirez said. “They are the backbone of this country, and without them we would have nothing. Black lives have always mattered. They matter today, and they will continue to matter forever.”

During a stop last Friday at a student’s home to drop off homework assignments, Stege special education teacher Hannah Geitner answered questions from one of her students about police brutality and the protests. She was expecting to have similar conversations all week with her students. 

“I was with him for maybe 10 minutes, and it came up because he’s thinking about it, and he’s really scared,” she said of the 12-year-old. “I think it’s pretty naive to assume my students do not see the images and the news because they all have social media.”

Geitner, who participated in the Oakland protests last weekend, said she understands how scared and fearful her black and Latino students must feel. With her students, Geitner said she tries to help them dissect the different narratives about the protests because they’re inundated with misinformation, particularly on social media.

“For me, it was important for him to know that white people cannot tell him, as a black boy, how he can show his anger and rage,” Geitner said referring to images and videos of police confronting protestors. “He’s really scared, but he’s mad.”

One reason her students may feel more comfortable with discussing racism and police brutality with her is that their discussion is not new and lessons often include social justice information. She talked with her students at the beginning of the school year about why former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel in silent protest of police brutality and racial injustice. The gesture by some police officers has become a symbol of solidarity with the protesters.

Geitner said the more difficult question to answer for her elementary-age students, is how they can protest and voice their outrage and solutions. She offered to take one student to a protest but was relieved when he turned her down. 

“I’ve seen how peaceful people are being and how violent the police are reacting to the peaceful protesting, so that would be scary to him,” she said. 

Geitner said these are tough conversations for teachers, especially when they’re also hurting or struggling with the racism happening around or to them. 

“I’m struggling with what to tell kids because I know even I’m having a hard time processing this,” she said.

Valeria Echeverria, a student at Richmond High and a staff writer of the West Contra Costa Student Reporting Project, contributed to this report.

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