Educators across the country have found themselves in the role of legal analyst, discussion leader, and counselor in recent days, as two divisive court cases involving race, profiling, and vigilantism captured the nation’s attention.
Last week, Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teen who killed two people and wounded a third during protests of police brutality in Wisconsin, was acquitted of all charges. Today, the jury began deliberations in the case of three white men on trial for killing Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged in his Georgia neighborhood.
We heard from teachers about how their students responded and how they approached these moments. Some had robust debates, others struggled to squeeze lessons in amid holidays and tight schedules, and others didn’t see it as their place. Here, five educators who tackled the verdict reflect on those conversations.
Adam Sanchez, social studies teacher, Central High School in Philadelphia
Sanchez’s school had a career day Monday, so he posted links in Google Classroom for students to spend time with on their own: a New York Times timeline of events in the Rittenhouse case; an editorial by ACLU Staff Attorney Leah Watson on the role that the Kenosha police played leading up to the incident a Democracy Now! episode that interviewed the family of Jacob Blake, whose shooting by police sparked the protest where Rittenhouse killed two people with an AK-15-style rifle. He did have 10 to 15 minutes in class to talk through some of the issues.
“We just had an open discussion about our thoughts and feelings. Black students were quick to point out that if Rittenhouse had been Black he likely wouldn’t have even made it to trial. Others had many questions about the events and how he could have been determined not guilty. One student said that she felt like we made a step forward with the conviction of Derek Chauvin and that felt like progress, but this feels like we’re taking steps backwards and right back where we started. I also had one student who defended Rittenhouse (after class in a private discussion with me).
“Ultimately, we both had to get to our next class. I’m still thinking about how to address that tomorrow.”
Kevin Shane, science teacher, Greenfield High School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
A few years ago, Shane says he might not have addressed a similar event in class. But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, his students are more aware of high-profile names in the news, making conversations about topics like race and justice more common.
“I’m a science teacher, so it’s not something that normally gets covered, but I’ll talk about it when it comes up,” he said. After the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, some of his students were happy, and others were sad and disappointed — a reflection of his district, which is racially and politically diverse.
“Regardless, I want them to see the inherent sadness that a kid felt like he needed to put himself in a situation where he could and did kill people,” Shane said. “I am always honest with students. I’m sad he killed people. I’m sad he felt like he needed to go to a city that wasn’t his own in order to ‘defend’ whatever he thought needed defending. It’s sad that the justice system works this way.”
Janel Moore-Almond, history teacher, George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in Philadelphia
Moore-Almond had an open discussion with her students Monday before their planned lesson. Her students had just finished a unit on Reconstruction, so lessons about racial inequities were fresh in their minds.
“The students’ reactions were fairly muted, but thoughtful. Most of the students who were aware of the trial were unsurprised by the verdict because of the state of race relations in the country; one or two spoke about the comments that were made by the judge during the trial. Another student noted that she was trying ‘not to lose hope’ in our system, but it was difficult. They also made the connection to the white supremacists after Reconstruction that went after white Republicans due to their political beliefs.”
Abigail Henry, ninth grade African-American history teacher, Mastery Charter School — Shoemaker Campus, Philadelphia
Henry’s students have a mock trial this week so she won’t be able to address the Rittenhouse verdict until next week. Her students will also be focusing on the Civil War at that point. She plans to listen again to an episode of NPR’s Code Switch about the history of Black people having weapons to fight back to inform her lessons.
“I just think of it from the historical perspective that Black people’s relationship with guns is very different than white people’s relationship with guns. White people have the right to claim self defense 1,000 times more easily than a Black man. This just made me think of Black Panther Party for self defense. How Black people carrying those weapons around terrified people. The young white kid traveled for the military grade weapon and claimed self defense. It’s amazing, the hypocrisy.
“I encourage them to share whatever feelings they have. Like if you’re feeling angry, you should feel angry. That’s why African-American history is so important. That’s why what we’re studying is so important. So that you can have a better understanding of when issues come up today.”
Torie Fritz, world history instructor, Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Fritz discussed the Rittenhouse verdict with the high school students in her world history course Monday. One white male student talked about the legality of guns in some cases. Fritz felt that as a white educator, she also needed to make space for a Black student who said, “it just makes me feel like I could be next. I could be the next person to have my life taken from me.”
“In a history class, you don’t always talk about things happening in the present, but right now this subject is incredibly important and it’s producing a lot of trauma and it connects to the history of the American justice system,” she said.
“In this case I think it’s imperative that we listen to people who don’t feel safe now, that are feeling retraumatized by things and are feeling incredibly disappointed.”
Johann Calhoun, Carrie Melago, and Sarah Darville contributed reporting.