Dan Levin writes for the New York Times. “He was a foreign correspondent covering Canada from 2016 until 2018. From 2008 to 2015, Mr. Levin was based in Beijing, where he reported on human rights, politics and culture in China and Asia. @globaldan“ This article appeared April 7, 2021.
At this point in the school year, Lacrissha Walton typically focuses her social studies lessons on the 50 U.S. states and their capitals. But last week, the Minneapolis teacher scrawled a question that had nothing to do with geography on her fourth-grade classroom’s whiteboard: “Have you watched the Derek Chauvin trial?”
While the murder trial of Mr. Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, might not appear to be age-appropriate instruction for 9-year-old students, Ms. Walton said she felt compelled to use the event as a teachable moment. All of her students had seen their city consumed by protests in the months that followed Mr. Floyd’s fatal arrest, and some had seen the widely circulated video, filmed by a teenager, that captured his violent, slow-motion death.
“No little kid should watch that,” Ms. Walton said. “But when it’s plastered all over the news, they have questions.”
In Minneapolis, educators have grappled over the last few weeks with how to address the trial with their students, with some using jury selection or witness testimony as an opportunity to explore the complex issues of race, policing and the criminal justice system. Teachers have cautiously given students the chance to ask questions and share their opinions during class. And school administrators and counselors have scheduled talking circles, where children can open up about how the trial has rekindled feelings of racial trauma and fears of potential unrest.
When Ms. Walton, who teaches at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, where most of the students are Black, asked her class what it knew about the trial, the children effortlessly explained who Mr. Chauvin was and his role in Mr. Floyd’s death. They knew that the person who runs the courtroom is called a judge, and their voices rang out in unison when asked to describe the 12 people who would render judgment: “the jury.”
After Ms. Walton asked which students thought Mr. Chauvin was guilty, plenty of small hands shot up. Asked why, a girl named Keyly laid out a devastating assessment of the defendant’s actions at the heart of the trial.
“He put his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “And George Floyd said he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe several times, and the police officer didn’t listen to him at all.”
The adult nature of the televised murder trial, marked by graphic videos and emotional eyewitness accounts, poses a challenge for educators. In Texas, a teacher at a majority-Black high school last week showed freshmen a livestream of the trial in class, including footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, and required them to act as mock jurors, prompting complaints from parents who said the project was assigned without their consent.
Ms. Walton said she received approval from the school administration to show brief parts of the court proceedings in class, but because of the trial’s traumatic elements, she was careful to not let her students see and hear anything too graphic or disturbing.
Across Minneapolis, where nearly seventy percent of public school students are nonwhite, discussions about the trial have occurred in school classrooms and online learning. Kristi Ward, the principal for third through eighth graders at Lake Nokomis Community School, said months of conversations about racial justice, along with the city’s more recent efforts to fortify the courthouse, made it impossible to ignore. And so she has worked with her staff on developing ways to prompt meaningful discussions with their students, who are 60 percent white, even if difficult questions are raised.
“We have to engage even if we’re uncomfortable and we don’t have the answers,” she said. “I’m telling them to stay on top of the trial to make sure they’re understanding the facts, and then just leaning into the conversation rather than pulling away.”
Tom Lachermeier, who teaches social studies at North Community High School, where the student population is 90 percent Black, called the trial “living history.” Mr. Floyd’s death, he said, rippled among those who attend the school, located in a neighborhood long ensnared by poverty and the city’s worst gang violence.
After the Minneapolis school board voted in June to end its contract with the Police Department, North Community High’s head football coach, Charles Adams, lost his day job as the school’s in-house police officer. Mr. Lachermeier acknowledged that many schools around the country have avoided the court proceedings entirely, but he said that as a white man, he knew he had to address the trial with his students.
“Me not saying anything about it says a lot,” he said. Before the trial, he covered the daily proceedings of jury selection during class time, and listened as many of his students expressed fears that Mr. Chauvin would be acquitted. Students have been on spring break since the trial began, but he said he discussed the first days of it with the softball players he coached.
Kyree Wilson, 16, a junior in Mr. Lachermeier’s United States history class, said those lessons motivated her to watch hours of the trial on YouTube during her time off from school. “It’s a real eye-opener,” she said of the trial, and the cases outlined by the defense lawyers and prosecutors, though the gut-wrenching witness accounts were “kind of hard to sit through.”
As Mr. Floyd was facedown on the pavement, handcuffed, Kyree was two blocks away, passing out fliers for a modern dance company, she said. She could hear the commotion from the growing crowd that had gathered, though she did not learn about what had happened until she returned home later that day. Over the summer, she attended protests, and she said she hoped that Mr. Chauvin was found guilty.
But the more Kyree has learned from the trial, the more she has become convinced that a conviction would do little to stop police brutality, she said. “The justice system is very broken and it’s used against African-Americans,” she said. “This situation makes me afraid of adulthood and growing up in America.”
Although the trial commenced while Lake Nokomis Community School in South Minneapolis was on spring break, Amanda Martinson, a sixth-grade math teacher, said her students knew it would soon begin. So she devoted some time in class to address their questions and concerns, she said, recalling some who mentioned the helicopters flying over the city, and a video sent by one student of military vehicles driving down their street.
“A lot of our students are nervous about what might happen throughout this trial because of everything that happened after George Floyd” was killed, Ms. Martinson said. “Kids are afraid of fires, and loud noises at night, and any kind of unrest.”
In Ms. Walton’s fourth-grade class, the trial has also served to impart lessons on important civic concepts like the right to protest and the workings of the court system. “One day they might have jury duty,” she said. “So you’re entitled to your opinion but when you’ve got to work with 11 other people, how are you going to do that?”
Shortly after class ended one day last week, Janiyah, 9, said her mother took her to a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. She described a mix of anger and sadness that she said she felt when she learned how Mr. Floyd had died. Though she has not seen the video of his fatal arrest or spoken to her mother about Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Janiyah grasped the outsize impact it could have in the nation’s fight for racial justice.
“I really hope they watch it,” Janiyah said of police officers who might have a fatal encounter with a Black person, “and then understand that one of the costs is they might go to jail.”