New Laws Make It Hard for Some Educators to Discuss Buffalo Shooting in Class

Ruyvette Townsend and her colleagues spent the past week comforting students at Leonardo da Vinci High School in Buffalo, New York, after last weekend’s mass shooting at Tops Friendly Supermarket.

The young people at her high school were encouraged to take part in “circle time” where they share their feelings about the attack. Townsend explained that some are angry and some are scared. An increased police presence at Buffalo Public Schools in the face of shooting threats has only heightened anxiety. Townsend explained to her students that they have access to a social worker and counselors, psychologists, and teachers like herself.

She told her students: “This is tragic for all of us to know that someone came into our community to hurt us just because of the color of our skin.”

Ten people were killed in this massacre. The community is still in shock. Townsend had to wait five days before she was able to drive past the supermarket, which is still closed.

When she finally visited the site, “the emotions that flooded up in me were unbelievable,” she said. There, she saw people hugging, talking and eating together — a community trying to heal.

Education experts say students who saw news coverage of the mass shooting outside Buffalo also need comforting. However, educators who live and work in states where there is no such coverage need to be comforted. laws limit how they can discuss race, “divisive concepts” or current eventsThis week, I took to social media to share my thoughts they did not mention the racist attack in classThey fear being penalized. It’s part of the latest wave of controversy over what parents, lawmakers and teachers say students should be exposed to when it comes to current events and the societal context surrounding them.

Scholars shared their knowledge The 19th that ignoring the anti-Black violence that transpired in Buffalo — and occurs elsewhere — does a disservice to students who need safe spaces to discuss real-world events and may benefit from an antiracist curriculum.

“It is important for teachers and other educators to talk about systemic oppression, but if you were to even just ask young people how they’re feeling right in the wake of what happened, that might be deemed inappropriate,” said Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum and training for the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) education division. “Talking about sensitive issues, divisive concepts, talking about structural racism, all of those topics are off limits. So, teachers are making choices, and it’s very hard because they don’t want to lose their jobs or be fined.”

Last year, 46,000 students, educators, administrators and staff in K-12 schools participated in the ADL’s anti-bias education programs, Spiegler said. But as laws are enacted prohibiting how teachers can address issues such as bias and hate, the organization has seen participation rates fall, though Spiegler didn’t specify by how much.

“We haven’t seen the effect yet of all the laws that passed this year,” she said. But she fears that what students learn about bias and hate will ultimately be determined by whether they live in a state that bans educators from broaching “sensitive” subjects.

“Over time, students will be exposed to different material,” she said. “Some will be able to talk about controversial or current events. Some will be able to talk about the Holocaust and some won’t, and book banning is definitely concentrated in some of these states.”

Leah Watson, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program decried the wave legislation that restricts discussions about race in schools. In a statement she stated that The 19thStudents and educators are entitled to learn in a censor-free environment.

“Censorship bills that chill discussions about race not only impact how history will be taught in schools, but they also chill educators’ ability to help students understand how racism and discrimination manifest in current events and impact their own lives,” Watson said.

Spiegler disagrees with lawmakers who are trying to ban classroom discussions and materials about race and identity, because it is possible for White students to feel uncomfortable. She said The 19thWhite supremacist extremists are recruiting White youth online. In 2021, the ADL surveyed teens for the first time about whether they’ve been exposed to white supremacist ideology online, and 10 percentMany of them claimed they had. Spiegler estimates that the percentage of youth exposed to such ideologies is likely even higher; not all teens recognize white supremacist ideology when they encounter it because it is often disguised “as jokes and memes and sarcasm and humor.”

Spiegler argues that these messages are spreading online and it is crucial that students have the opportunity to discuss bias in class and receive a curriculum. She said that stereotyping, bullying, and microaggressions can become more dangerous and violent acts of bias if they are not challenged and accepted by students. Students of color are also affected by the message that students of color receive when they ignore racist violence such as the one in Buffalo.

“It’s scary what happened,” Spiegler said. “It’s enraging. People worry about their personal safety, and if teachers are just like, ‘Open your math book,’ then what are they saying to young people? To me, it sends a message that they don’t value young people who are feeling harmed and marginalized by what happened.”

Prerna Arora is an assistant professor of school psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University. She said that teachers enter the teaching profession to support students in ways beyond academics. Teachers cannot discuss race in class, which limits their ability to support children during difficult times.

“My goal is to help educators and other adults help children become academically successful and socially, emotionally and behaviorally successful,” she said. “So we’re talking about how to develop the whole child, and if we restrict our ability to call out what’s happening, we hurt our efforts to help develop children who are not racist, who are anti-racist, who are understanding and loving and respectful and open to all children.”

Teachers in states with more restrictions can feel powerless to speak up — or find the context behind current events too fraught for the classroom. Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers said she would not discuss the massacre at Buffalo from a political or racial perspective. The gunman allegedly wroteBoth of these issues influenced him three hours to travel to predominantly Black East Buffalo to search for residents.

“We won’t get into that racial stuff,” Turner said. “We are getting to the fact that killings are wrong. I don’t care who’s doing it.”

Blaming White people, she said, will only serve to “separate the country more.” She questioned whether students would bring up the Buffalo shooting to their teachers, saying that Atlanta children routinely face gun violence that doesn’t make national news headlines. Turner suggested that teachers in Georgia who are using social media to discuss the effects of the shooting on their students and themselves should speak to their administrators.

In her experience as an educator, she said, students don’t typically want to discuss gun violence unless they personally know the victims.

Arora however stated that events like the Buffalo shooting can have long-lasting consequences. “It’s particularly relevant for children of color — this incident that happened,” she said.

The Buffalo gunman attracted comparisons to other mass-killers motivated by race, such the White man who drove from several miles away in 2019 to mainly Mexican American and Mexican-American victims shoppers at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. The COVID-19 pandemic coincided also with an increase in anti-Asian hate crime, including a mass shooting at Atlanta area spaLast year, s had a majority of Asian and Asian American workers.

Arora stated that educators are not alone in their struggles to find the right words to speak to students or to comment on the mass shooting. This is especially true for those who are grieving the loss of their children. Arora advises teachers to seek out like-minded educators who can provide mutual support. They can also brainstorm ways to broach sensitive topics in class in a manner that won’t lead to them being disciplined.

“How do you get administrators on board? How do you discuss this in a safe way where you feel like you’re not being fired?” she said. “How do you advocate for your profession? I believe the No. 1 thing educators need to know is that they aren’t the only ones with this challenge.”

Townsend in Buffalo is listening to students and confirming their observations. Some students, she said, have complained that the gunman is being described as “the shooter” and not as a “murderer.” Townsend told these students she understood their concerns. One student pointed out how hate crimes almost always happen in communities of color.

Townsend told the student: “You’re right,” she said. “African Americans have been a target for a long time, but we’ve got to heal from this just like we do from everything else.”

She finds it shocking that teachers are prohibited from discussing Buffalo in classes and believes that they should.

“How is a person going to know how to handle a situation if it’s not talked about?” she asked. “Students need to know how to move forward. It is important that students bring up topics because they want to be informed. And when you have knowledge, you have power.”