Outside the focus of the mainstream media camera lens, Baltimore schools are responding to a daunting challenge in the wake of Baltimore’s riots: what now? what next?
The death of Freddie Gray — and subsequent events — impacted students and staff in a way that prevents them from returning to business as usual, especially at those schools in the fray. Of course, there was an immediate need to determine how to provide services to those children, explain what happened – and then support them. But what now? For schools that are outside of the epicenter of the action, administrators must make a choice to either let the call to action die down or determine how to continue sustainable efforts to help.
The need is still there. The hard work hasn’t stopped.
not just a week of unrest
Social worker Henriette Taylor works in the Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, which is directly across the street from the residence of Gray’s family. As a community school coordinator who is part of a University of Maryland School of Social Work initiative called Promise Heights, Taylor works with the school’s staff to provide social and emotional support to students, parents, and teachers.
As soon they received advance notice about the Monday protests, the staff was on the phones creating a plan for how they would address the situation with their students on Tuesday morning. When school was cancelled on Tuesday, Taylor and other staff members scrambled to find churches and other institutions that would offer food for those children who would normally receive meals in school. And when the students returned to school on Wednesday, the school had a “response room” waiting for them, a space where students who were struggling with the aftermath of the trauma could receive help and guidance from a specialist in mental health.
“We needed to address these concerns with the understanding that trauma in children shows up in different ways, and that it doesn’t necessarily show itself right away,” says Taylor. For example, a child might suddenly start having accidents, falling asleep at her desk, or acting out in ways that she never had before. For many of these children, whether they witnessed a riot firsthand or saw clips on the news, the unrest lives on in their minds until it can be processed.
Taylor maintains that the actual unrest in the heart of the city is never over.
“I hear people refer to the extreme poverty and hunger in Africa,” she says, “but we can stay in our own city and still see what extreme poverty looks like.”
She says that many families in the city are living on less than seven hundred dollars a month, and that her staff needs to constantly address the emotional issues that come along with poverty, crime, and institutionalized racism – issues that her students deal with every day.
making tough topics accessible
For one second grade teacher at Henderson Hopkins Partnership School, the April riots acted as a springboard for difficult discussions with students.
“Since our students are so young, it was important to me that I framed the conversation in a way that was informative and honest, but still developmentally appropriate,” says Heidi Dworin. “I also wanted to make sure that my students understood the difference between the ‘protesters,’ the ‘rioters,’ and the ‘looters.’”
She created a flipchart that explained why people protest peacefully when they are angry about situations that they felt were unfair, as well as why some people might respond violently. Dworin discussed with students how they deal with their own anger, and which responses are most effective in creating change.
Her advice for teachers and parents trying to discuss these difficult topics with children? “I would push anyone trying to discuss the events with young children to incorporate time for brainstorming solutions. I’d also encourage following up on their ideas! One way that my students were able to ‘decorate’ the city [to help the community] was by drawing pictures and love-notes for Baltimore with sidewalk chalk on the courtyard outside of my school.”
Perhaps the most impressive way that Dworin helped her students feel that they were making an impact was by creating a YouTube video. She helped them deliver the message to the world that her students represented “the real Baltimore,” as opposed to those who destroyed the parts of the city that were most dear to them.
not just in front of the camera
Alicia Danyali, Head of School at the New Century School in downtown Baltimore, wanted her students and parents to take action based on the events in April, and she did not want the inspiration to help to be short-lived.
“What we really took to heart is that we didn’t want this to be a one-time ‘this happened, let’s respond to the crisis, and then we’re done,’ but to think about how the school could build real community partnership that can fill a need that is ongoing,” she says. The wanted to help those around them, not “just when the cameras are rolling, but to respond to years and years of injustice that has been occurring in Baltimore City.”
So her school has created a partnership with a community center in the area affected by the riots. They have discovered what the center needs and has asked their parent body to help supply those needs – everything from toys and puzzles for kids to diapers and feminine toiletries.
“This goes hand in hand with our curriculum,” says Danyali. “We want our students to learn the importance of giving back, to understand that they can work together with people in the community and see positive change. We are already a part of this community, but we want to make a richer connection, to pause and breathe, and remember about being kind, humble, and of service to other people.”
Although Henriette Taylor speaks sadly of all the promises that were made to her school’s community and quickly forgotten once the cameras were gone, Danyali’s school plans to be different.
“I went to a service leadership training session a conference recently, and I heard something that I’ve encountered many times, but it really rang true: ‘With privilege comes responsibility.’ Privilege doesn’t mean you’re in the top 1% — It means not worrying about where your next meal is coming from, and being cared for.”
She hopes to give over to her students the importance of taking that responsibility seriously, and helping Baltimore to unify, one school at a time.