Culture

School District Bans Talking About Ferguson

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auvet/Flickr

Google Maps tells me that Edwardsville, Illinois, is just a 33-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems natural that Edwardsville students might want to talk about the events drawing national attention so close to their own homes—but they best not do it at school. As of Wednesday, talking about the Michael Brown shooting and surrounding events is prohibited in Edwardsville classrooms. 

Superintendant Ed Hightower told CBS St. Louis that normally he encourages open discussion, but there are just too many "facts that are unknown" in this case. So Edwardsville middle- and high-school teachers were instructed this week not to broach the subject themselves and "change the subject and refocus" if students brought it up. 

On Thursday, a memo went out to parents explaining the superintendent's decision. Via the Edwardsville School District 7 Parents Facebook page

Subject: Discussion of the Ferguson/Florissant Incident

On Friday, August 15, 2014, and Monday, August 18, 2014, Dennis Cramsey, EHS Principal, and I were inundated with calls from parents complaining that some EHS teachers were biased and injecting their own opinion regarding the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American student, by a Caucasian police officer in the Ferguson/Florissant community. The general consensus of parents who called was that if the administration did not get a handle on this situation, there might be violence among students occurring at EHS.

As Superintendent, I will take full responsibility for not preparing administrators and staff members how to deal with this volatile situation. As a result, on Monday afternoon, the decision was made to cease discussion of the event because of the tension, emotion, and anger surrounding the Ferguson/Florissant events.

It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events. However, we felt it was important to take the time to calm a potential situation at the high school and to prepare administrators and teachers to approach this critical issue in an objective, fact-based manner. Everyone has an opinion – the sharing of which can be polarizing. Far too many facts remain unknown, and without these facts, none of us is in the best position to moderate between opposing views.

The memo continues by noting that the district is developing "a framework" for teachers to follow when discussing the issue that will ensure "a safe and orderly environment" is maintained. As soon as this framework is completed—which the district expects to happen sometime during the week of August 25—Edwardsville school district will return to "its commitment toward diversity, positive race relationships, due process, and social justice," it assures parents. 

Some parents on Facebook were supportive of the Superintendent's decision. "As a parent, I am already having these conversations with my child at home where I feel they should be discussed," wrote Nick Pieri. "I am not sure I feel comfortable with teachers, or a politician for that matter, speaking with my child about this topic without knowing ahead of time what will be discussed."

But others were dismayed by what they saw as an overreaction by the school district. Some suggested that the superintendent could have simply instructed teachers to cool it on the personal opinions, rather than shut down conversation entirely. "While I respect that individual teachers' opinions should not be part of the classroom discourse about any topic," wrote Mandi Cygne, who has three children in Edwardsville schools, "I feel that by effectively censoring current events out of our schools, you are doing a grave mis-service to our student population in District 7, including my own children." 

"As a District 7 parent, I expect the professionals who teach my son to make good use of opportunities to engage students in critical thinking, particularly when the subject matter is an urgent and timely one," wrote Steve Moiles. "I also expect that District 7 administrators will not prohibit faculty from engaging in meaningful discussions of significant current events when students offer their own observations or ask questions." 

I called the Edwardsville School District Friday morning for confirmation and commentary; alas, only the superintendent himself can say anything, I'm told, and he's apparently in meetings "all day."