Derek Francis has heard the phrase “Minnesota Nice” more than he cares to admit. The Minneapolis native, who has spent his entire life in the area, learned quickly that the state’s reputation for being courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered is a guise when it comes to race relations.

“It’s been brewing,” says Francis, manager of counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools. “People don’t want to talk about race. It gets uncomfortable. People don’t do community with people from different backgrounds, so you see all these microaggressions come out. We’re already down and then this happens.”

“This” is a reference to the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a Minneapolis police officer handcuffed him, forced him to lay face down on the ground, and held a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of killings involving white police officers and African American men and women, led to weeks of riots and protests across a nation already traumatized by the pandemic.

For districts and school leaders, the twin calamities of the pandemic and the protests have shined a harsh spotlight on the academic, economic, physical, and social and emotional health needs that face students of color as they return to school. Already, districts in several major cities—Minneapolis was the first—have terminated or are considering ending contracts with their local police departments. The move, while controversial in some safety-focused circles, is one that racial justice groups argue can help end some of the disparities against Black youth.

The abrupt shift from traditional classrooms to a distance learning model exposed already known inequities caused by lack of technology access. And schools in low-income areas also are feeding students one to two meals a day. As districts prepare to return to school, the immediate question is, “What else can and should be done?”

“It’s frustrating, because we know students of color are under-resourced,” says Lecia Brooks, chief workplace transformation officer for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a longtime leader in the organization’s Teaching Tolerance effort. “Learning is going to be more difficult. We already know because of the pandemic and the shutting down of schools that learning is already lost, and that’s just going to increase the disparities.”

Opportunity gaps

If the protests forced society to take a hard look at how Black people are treated, why shouldn’t society and schools do the same for their students of color? Many would argue they have; for decades, schools have worked to close gaps—first called “achievement” gaps and now more broadly “opportunity” gaps—between Black students and their white non-Hispanic peers. Despite this work, African American youth continue to be disciplined and receive special education referrals at higher rates than their white classmates.

“It starts from the top,” Francis says. “Most school districts say they have a desire to be equity-based and inclusive and all that jazz, but how many of them are having a real conversation about what that looks like? How do they address issues when situations happen? Are they proactive or reactive?”

Deborah Gist, superintendent of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools, had those conversations with her school board and staff when she moved back to the community from Rhode Island five years ago. Tulsa, with just over 41,000 students, is a majority-minority district where more than half of the students are Latino or Black.

“School the way we’ve known it has not worked for most of our kids for decades,” Gist says. “We have to combat mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors across the district, and we have to plan and design our work for the students who are the farthest from where they need to be to be successful. That’s the way we’re going to reach all of our students.”

The spillover effect of racism and fear for safety has taken a toll on mental health in the Black community, with researchers saying Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites. A 2019 study commissioned by the Congressional Black Caucus showed suicide attempts by Black adolescents rose 73 percent between 1991 and 2017, even though they are significantly less likely to receive treatment for depression. Long-term exposure to racism was cited as one of the causes for the dramatic jump.

The pandemic has further exposed these vulnerabilities, researchers warn. The COVID-19 death rate for African Americans is nearly twice what would be expected based on their share of the population, while Latinos and Hispanics have tested positive for the virus at disproportionate rates in almost every state.

Seth Gershenson, an education economist and American University professor who has studied the effect of violence on African American youth, says the pandemic has “disproportionately affected” low-income and underrepresented minority students. The riots and protests, he says, only make things worse.

“The coronavirus already was a traumatic event that distracted students, parents, and teachers from the core purpose of learning,” Gershenson says. “But there’s no question this combination of events will severely affect Black students, their learning, and their ability to focus on their learning over the summer and well into the fall. And that’s a best-case scenario.”

Gershenson points to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the effect it had on students of color. The “constant stress and constant trauma” that resulted from the shooting and the protests that followed profoundly affected minority students, especially in elementary schools.

“The biggest takeaway was that this was broader than just Ferguson,” Gershenson says. “The effect was the largest in Ferguson, but Black students throughout the St. Louis area also were harmed. That suggests that whether a protest happened in your city isn’t the single answer about whether achievement will be affected or not. All Black students are affected. It’s just a matter of degree how much.”

Centuries-old problem

As districts prepare for the return of students following this unprecedented time in history, what can they do to address this chronic yet urgent problem?

James Rodriguez, senior research scientist and director of trauma-informed services at New York University’s McSilver Institute, says schools should not try to disentangle current events from the bigger issue—our country’s “centuries-old problem” in dealing with race.

“It’s very easy to get lost in the current,” Rodriguez says. “The current is not the worst. It’s just the latest of many instances that have occurred historically. This has to do with systemic trauma and toxic stress that is disproportionate in our society.”

Rodriguez says schools must provide training on institutional racism and implicit bias for staff so they can have a common understanding about how the two issues affect students of color. Understanding implicit bias—the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that we have toward others—is especially critical for teachers.

“I’ve heard the term institutionalized racism used more often in the past month than ever,” he says. “On one hand, that’s good, but I’m concerned that people don’t really understand implicit bias and how it operates. With the flood of information that’s out there, and the various ways depending on the media outlet where we get the information from, it becomes more important than ever to address those issues through training. Implicit bias can play an incredible role in perpetuating racism.”

Brooks, who helped build the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program into a trusted resource for schools, says teachers, administrators, and families should be talking now about “how to design a new way forward” for students of color. She says many school leaders understand the concepts around equity for all students and are quick to “make lofty statements about what the district stands for and the district does,” but fail to follow up with proper training for staff.

“This is not a new idea,” she says. “But this is another opportunity to at least try to do it right. … And these events show that it is critically important for teachers to build their competency about what the concepts of institutional racism and implicit bias mean and how they play out across different institutions and sectors of society. Then they must have the courage and the tools to be able to engage the students in the conversation.”

Disrupt oppression

Thirteen days before Floyd was killed, the Minneapolis school board voted 6-3 to redraw attendance boundaries and cut back on the number of magnet schools to help address racial disparities in the district. The controversial plan, which also will relocate the remaining magnet schools to the center of the city starting in 2021-22, is “academic justice for a system that has failed Black and brown children,” school board member Kimberly Cipriani said after the meeting.

“I hope the restructuring is really designed for racial equality,” Francis says. “It’s a step in a direction because something needs to be done, but it really needs to be done at the individual educator level. We need to answer the hard questions of how we’re teaching our kids differently. How are we going to do this work? How are we going to integrate schools more if we don’t have people of color in place to teach them?”

Francis notes that Minneapolis will not have counselors in its 45 elementary schools in 2020-21 due in part to ongoing budget constraints. He is working with social workers and psychologists assigned to the schools to do a social and emotional needs assessment for students, but he is worried that it won’t be enough.

“Students need to start talking about race and understanding at the start, not when they get to middle school or high school, and you’ve got to make sure the right supports are in place,” he says. “You have to have conversations throughout the year, and in most schools, students don’t have a lot of staff of color to talk to. They don’t have that natural person of the same background that they can turn to and trust.”

Gist says schools cannot be complacent in dealing with issues around race. Education and society, she believes, have been “designed to produce inequitable outcomes” and making changes to the status quo “requires disruption.”

“We can’t do what we’ve done in the past when we’ve had these scenarios,” she says. “We are stirred for a period of time. Some things move forward. We react and then settle back into a place that we had been previously. We can’t do that this time. We cannot let ourselves do that. We have to face this injustice head on. Oppression adapts, and we are either going to perpetuate it or we’re going to disrupt it."

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