Despite the plethora of lessons to be gleaned from the events in Ferguson, Mo., teachers at schools close to the action are being told not to discuss the issue with curious students.
Middle and high school teachers at the Edwardsville School District, just miles east of where police shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, are under orders to “change the subject and refocus the students” whenever the controversial topic is brought up.
“Such comments have caused students and parents to lash out which is not healthy in the District 7 community,” a memo from Edwardsville High School Principal Dennis Cramsey to faculty said, without providing specific examples.
For the better part of two weeks, Ferguson had been the site of riots, looting, protests and clashes with militarized police forces following Brown’s death. Police also detained, threatened, tear gassed, shot rubber bullets at and arrested journalists, in an unprecedented display of force that would not seem out of place in authoritarian dictatorships like North Korea.
The issue has grown even more controversial following the emergence of evidence suggesting the unarmed teen actually might have attacked Ferguson police officer Darrin Wilson, provoking him to draw his service weapon and fire on the aggressor.
With race relations and the militarization of police hitting close to home for many, it’s been hard for people, including teachers, to keep their opinions, and lessons, objective and free of emotional investment.
Yesterday, for instance, we reported on the suspension of a 6th grade teacher in Alabama after she asked black and white students to reenact the shooting, right down to where and how Brown was shot. The lesson prompted at least one parent to reach out to the school district, claiming, “[T]hey are teaching these children to hate one another.”
While the events in Ferguson could likely fill a week’s lesson plan – covering anything from how racial tensions are being manipulated, to how police have gradually become an occupying army, to how authorities suppressed the freedom of the press and the freedom to assemble – District 7 Superintendent Ed Hightower says school’s not the place to be having that discussion.
“We all have personal opinions about what has gone wrong, what has gone right. And we all have opinions on what should be done,” said Hightower. “We don’t need to voice those opinions or engage those opinions in the classrooms.”
Some students, on the other hand, argue Ferguson is fair game, as it is rife with lessons to be learned and a current event still dominating headlines worldwide.
“It’s modern history,” one student told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It’s huge. It’s so much more interesting than things that happened 200 years ago.”
Much like the school that punished a student who said, “Bless you,” when someone sneezed, the district is skirting the line between thought control and a violation of the First Amendment by preventing students from having meaningful classroom discussions with their peers and instructors.