Dawkins: Charlottesville shows us the vital role of public schools in battling hate

Charlottesville statue

It’s been over a week since the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., but most Americans—myself included—are still rattled.

By now, you know the story: A planned protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee devolved into a violent clash between hundreds of white supremacist and neo-Nazi protestors and counter-protestors who gathered to oppose them. Last Saturday afternoon, a car plowed into a group of counter-protestors killing one and injuring several others.

Since the incident, we’ve seen protests erupt throughout the country, in combination with heated television news debates over the nature of history, free speech, and race.

Despite great progress on many fronts, the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere served as a stark reminder of the distance we still must travel to eradicate the destructive forces of hate, bigotry, and violence that exist in this country.

That journey takes many forms—and, for many of us, it starts in our schools.

In the wake of news and outrage surrounding the Charlottesville tragedy, I was struck by one story in particular—one example that demonstrates the important role that educators can play in the teaching and development of our children.

The Washington Post reported the story of Derek Weimer, a Kentucky teacher who taught alleged Charlottesville attacker James Alex Fields, Jr. (now 20 years old) in two high school history classes. Weimer said he was concerned at the time about the then-teenager’s world view. Now, he says, he regrets not doing more to intervene.

“It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler. He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff. This was something that was growing in him. I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

As a former educator and school leader, I know how difficult it can be to break through to a student—especially in the face of long-standing personal beliefs. I’ve felt the disappointment of trying and failing to fully connect with a young person in need.

As a school leader, I learned to channel that frustration and disappointment into focus. Every day, I willed myself to try just a little harder.

Every educator encounters at least one student who is exceptionally difficult to reach. Early in my career—in my second year as a middle school educator—I encountered a young man with a history of bullying and violence against his peers.

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This particular student had been taught that aggressive behavior against others was the only way to achieve his goals. I connected with colleagues and worked with him and with his parents to develop a plan to address his behavior. We had many personal conversations. The breakthrough came when the student finally shared a fear of rejection and ridicule that stemmed from a history of low academic performance and a dysfunctional home life.

As an educator, I provided opportunities for the student to engage and collaborate with classmates in a meaningful, structured, and safe environment. These encounters resulted in a noticeable decline in his outbursts and violent behavior.

My only regret: that we didn’t address his needs earlier.

Our public schools are still the center of the developmental life of scores of young children. In the aftermath of Charlottesville and other events, we need that focus today, more than ever.

Following the Charlottesville attack, teachers across the country began to share lessons and curricula to help teach tolerance in schools. A new twitter hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum encourages educators to contribute resources that help teach the history of racism and intolerance in America. As the Washington Post reports, other groups, like the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center, have also released resources for educators.

While curriculum is important, what’s more important is engaging your students—and their families—in real conversations about tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. While no one assignment by itself will change deeply held beliefs, accessibility to real, open, and honest conversations about history and society can have a lasting impact.

Former President Barack Obama was recently in the news after posting the most-liked tweet ever. His message featured a quote by South African civil rights icon Nelson Mandela:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

In the midst of political and racial turmoil, educators and other school leaders can play a role in ending hatred before it starts by instilling in students an appreciation for dialogue, as well as an understanding for how far we’ve come as a society—and how far we still have to go.

If we want to ensure a vibrant, accepting democracy, our public schools must lead the way.

What steps are you taking to talk to your students about the events in Charlottesville, or more generally about race and tolerance? Tell us in the comments. 

About the Author

Gerald Dawkins
Dr. Gerald Dawkins is a former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan. He is currently senior vice president of superintendent and district relations for K12 Insight.

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