In the aftermath of a fatal officer-involved shooting of a 20-year-old black college student, some Memphis students and teachers say they see they see parallels with their own lives and those of the students they teach.
Brandon Webber, a former student leader at Central High School, was killed Wednesday, following an alleged altercation with federal law enforcement.
“This makes me feel so powerless,” said Elaine Lee, an 11th-grade student at White Station High School. She noted that “Brandon Webber was literally a student like me just a couple years ago, and now he’s gone.” Lee blamed law enforcement for the shooting, though many of the details of what led to Webber’s death have yet to be made public.
U.S. Marshals said they sought Webber on multiple warrants, including an unidentified violent crime, and allege Webber rammed his vehicle into theirs multiple times Wednesday before “exiting with a weapon.” The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is leading the probe into the shooting that killed Webber, and declined to give specifics about how many times officers shot him, what kind of weapon Webber was carrying, or if he pointed it at officers.
On the night of the shooting, protesters — many seeing Webber’s death as the latest example of a deadly, officer-involved shooting of a young black man in America — demanded answers. Some threw rocks at the Memphis police officers who had been called to the scene. The shooting and its aftermath attracted national news coverage. In Memphis, what happened was felt profoundly among students, parents, and teachers.
Chalkbeat asked readers to share their thoughts and reactions to Webber’s death and what has followed. Here’s some of what they had to say:
“I want [adults] to know that even though we may not be connected to this person or whatever the case is, we will still be affected,” said Lakia Coakley, a 10th-grade student at Middle College High School. “It will cause us to be scared, give up, have trust issues, and it will cause us to do stupid things out of fright.”
Research has backed up Coakley’s assertions. Students near Ferguson, Missouri, experienced declines in achievement and attendance in the period after an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by police there in 2014. That shooting also spurred protests against police brutality, first locally and then nationally.
“It makes me feel like we are teaching our students all the wrong things,” said Hannah McTiernan, a fifth-grade teacher at Promise Academy Spring Hill, a Memphis school situated a few miles away from where Webber was shot. “Though they need math and reading and core subjects, they really need spaces to process and grieve the trauma that comes with these events being a regular part of their lives. That should be schools’ first priority, but the resources that our students need are not there.”
One educator, who responded anonymously, said it’s important to remind students that “all actions have consequences,” and added, “I blame the community for how they respond and this makes my job harder. I will continue to teach my students to think before they act.”
Some teachers said they would discuss the shooting with students to talk about anything from how to interact with the police to American history to how news outlets portray black men.
“It makes me aware of the importance and urgency of every day I’m with my students,” said a fifth-grade teacher at Grizzlies Preparatory, an all-boys charter school. “Every conversation is a teachable moment where I can not only impart academic knowledge but how to survive while being black in America.”
Other teachers talked about how working with black students expanded their view on officer-involved shootings.
Tiffany Crow, who until recently taught at Memphis’ Oakhaven High School, said she was “ashamed” that she used to disparage suspects who had photos online with gang signs or guns. (Some of Webber’s photos on social media shared by news outlets showed him fanning cash or holding a gun.)
“I fell in love with my students,” Crow said. “For the most part, they were kind, generous, and respectful. Most of my students have social media profiles that boast the same image as Webber. I use this as an opportunity to help any friends or family see that an image or perception isn’t the reality. We must stop dehumanizing young men and women based on those ‘chosen’ photos, whether they made the wrong choices or not.”
Virginia Ivey, a third-grade teacher at Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary in Memphis, recalled how her students responded to the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police in 2014.
“I’ll never forget one of them saying his picture reminded them of one of their cousins,” she said. “Education is literally life and death for our children of color. … Fostering a safe space to express and explore ideas will open the door to conversations that can fix broken systems.”
Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary teacher in Tipton County, said education won’t make a difference if students continue to face injustice in other areas of their lives.
“This case deeply saddens me,” she said. “[It] feels like no matter what we do as teachers, until there is systematic change, there is still a possibility of our students facing a similar fate as Brandon.”