August 21, 2014

Local school districts take varied approaches to addressing Ferguson unrest

The public unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown has prompted national discussions on controversial issues like racism and the militarization of police.

With schools back in session, the subject has prompted a discussion of how this and other sensitive topics should be handled when they are brought up by students.

At least one metro-east school district -- Edwardsville -- is telling teachers to avoid discussions relating to the events in Ferguson. This stance has prompted public outcry from some parents and students on social media sites.

Superintendent Ed Hightower said that over the weekend, he and Edwardsville High School Principal Dennis Cramsey fielded a number of calls from parents complaining that teachers were injecting their opinions into discussions about the events in Ferguson.

"The general consensus of parents who called was that if the administration did not get a handle on the situation, there might be violence among students occurring at EHS," Hightower said. "It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events."

Hightower said he took responsibility for not preparing staff how to deal with the situation. "We made some mistakes," he said.

On Monday, Hightower said he decided to cease discussions because of the tension, emotion and anger surrounding the events. "There is no perfect way to handle it; every district is unique, every district has different characteristics," he said. "There's no hard and fast way to do this."

Hightower said a letter to parents explaining the decision and their future approach would go out soon.

East St. Louis District 189 is taking a different approach. Superintendent Arthur Culver sent an e-mail to staff members Thursday morning encouraging them to listen to students.

"Our students may want to talk about these events or ask questions about what is happening," Culver stated. "Please take the time to listen and to let them voice their concerns as they watch the investigation unfold."

The district is sending a similar letter home to parents and guardians. In the letter, Culver states teachers are prepared to listen to all concerns from students and seek additional counseling or social work help for students if necessary.

At Triad schools in Troy, Superintendent Leigh Lewis said they are handling it like any other current event.

"We are confident that our teaching staff will use professional judgment when discussing the topic or events," Lewis said. "Teachers will consider what is age-appropriate, classroom-appropriate and will rely on colleagues and the administration to serve as a resource, should they need to discuss how to plan for and carry out this type of discussion in the classroom."

Other local school districts have not taken a stance one way or the other.

Belleville School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said district officials have not had formal discussions regarding how to address activities in Ferguson.

"If kids have questions, our staff will answer them in the best way they can," he said. "What we can't have is a disruption to the school day."

Cahokia District 187 Superintendent Art Ryan said, "We have not told anybody to not talk about it. As best as I am aware, it hasn't become an issue," he said.

In Granite City, some classes have had discussions but, "We don't want it to stand in the way of our regular curriculum," Superintendent Jim Greenwald said.

Collinsville Superintendent Robert Green also said that they would offer counseling services to any student who required them. "As far as classroom discussions, we expect our teachers to be professional and approach any issue as such," he said.

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