Baltimore's School Kids React To The Protests: "We All Live Here"

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images.
The tension and unrest that gripped Baltimore last week in response to the death of Freddie Gray has eased. The storefronts that were looted have been cleaned up; the six officers who were involved in the 25-year-old's arrest and fatal injury have been charged; the curfew has been lifted, and kids are back in class, after many of the city's public schools were shuttered for a day or more last week.

It would have been impossible to avoid talking about Freddie Gray, police brutality, and the local tumult in schools, so once kids returned to the classrooms, Baltimore's teachers had to decide if and how to explain recent events to their charges. 

"The Wednesday coming back to school was a day filled with me listening to stories of how my students and their families have been profiled, assaulted, harassed, illegally detained, and made to feel less than human by the police officers in their community," Brooke Petruzzelli, a ninth and 10th grade science teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, told us. "It was also filled with some conversations about how it's not all police officers that do this."

Frederick Douglass is located across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where riot police amassed and then turned away student buses on Monday, just before school ended, setting the stage for the unrest that followed that night.

Even though Monday night and Tuesday were disrupted by riot police and protests, Petruzzelli made her class a safe space for the whole week. "One of my students had a powerful statement about this," she said, "which was, 'Some people were rioting and some weren't, but we all have to take responsibility because we all live here. The same should be for the police. Some are good, some are bad, but they all need to take responsibility for being better.'"

Even young children spent time talking about what was happening. "I explained that people in Baltimore and all over the country have been feeling angry for a long time, because some police — who are supposed to be keeping us safe — were being violent, careless, and unfair," Heidi Dworin, a second grade teacher said. Her students knew enough to know that people were protesting the death of Freddie Gray, and that there was looting Monday night.

They also knew enough to want to send a message to the rest of the world about their city, which they put on YouTube.
So, what happens now?

Baltimore's city schools are overwhelmingly poor — according to school data, almost 85% of students from kindergarten to sixth grade qualify for free or reduced lunch and 84% are African-American — which means today's schoolchildren will be directly affected by any future changes to the system.

Things may be quieter, and people are hopeful now that there is a chance that the officers responsible for Gray's death could be brought to justice, but the last thing they want is for things to return to normal — since the status quo, for many, has felt lacking. 

"I will be heartbroken, as will my students, if normalcy is all that comes from these events in the end," Petruzzelli said. "Things need to change in Baltimore. We need more resources in our schools. We need more after-school programs and summer programs... We need people from outside of Baltimore to understand the daily lives of my students and stop judging them based on what they see on the media."
Dworin's kids had another important insight into something we could all learn from Baltimore: When she explained that angry members of the community, and even President Obama, called those who damaged property or injured people thugs, she said, "I asked my students to consider whether or not name-calling was a good choice for dealing with their anger. Everyone agreed that it is not."

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