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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

Principal Connection / Responding to Ferguson

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      When my African American son was born, I worried whether he would make it to his 21st birthday. Before he got his driver's license, I made sure to tell him what to do when he was stopped by the police, not if," the African American mom said. "He should keep his hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, and be exceedingly polite." She emphasized the word exceedingly. I watched the audience as she spoke, and it seemed that every African American in the crowd nodded in knowing agreement. This was early September, and we were hosting an evening for our school community to grieve and to move forward.
      My school, New City School, is a 20-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the tragic death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9, 2014. He was shot by a white police officer, and his death led to protests and community outbursts. No doubt you heard about it on the news. Since that time, there have been more shooting tragedies across the United States and protests around the world. I've seen photos of protesters holding signs related to these events beneath the Eiffel Tower and in the Middle East.
      In mid-August, I shared my distress in a letter to my school's families. I wrote,
      To be clear, I am not condoning violence or looting of any kind, period. But I am saying that I understand how people can feel unheard, frustrated, and, indeed, threatened. We can only progress from this through conscious efforts and continued communication, and we should never underestimate the power of effort and dialogue.
      The protests and outbursts in Ferguson continued and were a topic in our school halls, faculty lounge, and some classrooms. Our city was tense because of concerns about what might happen when the grand jury decided whether to indict the police officer. Some of my school's families and staff members live in or near Ferguson, but what happened is an issue for all of us, so we decided to provide an opportunity for our school family to grow and learn together.
      On the evening of September 4, a racially mixed crowd of about 120 parents, staff members, and neighbors gathered in our auditorium. Stephanie Teachout, our director of diversity (and also a teacher at our school), welcomed the group with the statement, "Talking about race is not always easy, and it takes courage to say 'I didn't understand your perspective.'"
      In my introduction, I noted that Michael Brown's death was a tragedy but that what brought us together that night was the community's reaction—the now-obvious distrust, resentment, and anger that exist not only in many areas of St. Louis but also across the United States. I explained that we would hear from our panelists and ask questions but that the evening needed to be more than a catharsis, valuable as that might be. "Racism is at the root of the problem," I said, "and before we end I will ask each of us to think about and to share what we, personally, might do to ameliorate racism."
      A panel of five current or former New City School parents brought their own perspectives on race. The first speaker, a parent and educator, began by saying what a tragedy this was for everyone. "Michael Brown is one of our sons," he said, "and so is Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot him." He talked about how too many African American boys fail at school and said that we need to look at what we can do to change that. "What's the role of our institutions?" he asked.
      The second speaker was our city's chief of police, who talked about the need for police to be members of the community: "We need police playing basketball with kids, knowing neighbors. We don't need tanks," he said.
      The third speaker, the mom I referred to earlier, talked about how she prepared her child for a world in which the color of his skin would cause some to treat him differently. She shared that she bought him a license plate frame for his college graduation so that police might see that he was a college graduate when they stopped him and therefore might treat him differently. Again, there were nods of agreement from many in the crowd.
      The fourth speaker, a professor, pointed out how crime data reflect the unjustness of our society. Our last speaker, a local businessman, agreed with the others' remarks and said that we should learn from this and show other communities how to respond. The audience was engaged and listening throughout.
      The most important part of the evening was the end, when those present met in groups of six to eight to discuss what they might do to work against racism. The discussions were so successful that it was hard to get the groups to stop sharing so that we could come together. The bulk of the strategies focused on taking the time to know and understand one another. One person said, "We all need to take the time to greet others, whether or not we know them, especially if they are a member of a different race." His words elicited many nods of agreement.
      Our work is not finished. The police officer who shot Michael Brown was not indicted, and that fact resulted in many more nights of protest and violence. We have talked about these issues with our faculty members and helped them initiate and respond to discussions on race with students. That work continues. As I write, we are planning more community discussions on race and on what each of us can do to make a difference. These are all teachable moments.
      I hope you won't have this kind of tragedy in your community, but the reality is that it could have happened anywhere. And even if you don't face this particular difficulty, some other incident may raise the need for you to bring your school family together to work through a challenge. If so, I hope our school's experience can be helpful.

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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