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Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown's Death

Prohibiting students from talking about events in Ferguson offers them exactly the opposite of what they need.

Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia via


When faced with tragedies like the shooting of Michael Brown and the community unrest that followed, there are many hard questions to be asked. Why did this happen again? Who should be held accountable? How do we prevent such injustices?

But among the hard questions, few are so pressing, or essential, as this: What do we tell the children?

For educators, that question weighs heavily, and in the Brown case all the more so because Brown’s death occurred just as the new academic year begins.But in Edwardsville, Illinois, the answer is chilling: What do we tell the children? We tell them nothing.

From the local CBS affiliate in St. Louis:

A new directive has been issued in Edwardsville schools: Don’t talk about Ferguson or Michael Brown in class.

Superintendent Ed Hightower says normally there would be an open discussion of current events.

“However, this situation in Ferguson-Florissant has become a situation whereby there are so many facts that are unknown,” he says.

He says teachers have been told not to discuss it and if students bring it up, they should change the subject.

This is inexcusable for many reasons. The shooting is grounded in racial issues we already refuse to discuss in the U.S., despite the fact that they impact all of our lives, students’ included. Failure to confront a topic certainly won’t make it go away, and how students feel about the world impacts how they learn about the world.

But we also cannot ignore that this banning of a difficult topic is related to both the traditional view that education should be “objective” (i.e., absent emotion and opinion), and the current high-stakes environment plaguing our schools. Schools have long been driven by a workplace model honoring “time on task” over relevance to students’ lives, but the current “accountability” era has rendered schools places where nothing is relevant unless it is tested—including tragedies.

Whatever the policy changes driving such a shift, schools and teachers must hold themselves to a higher standard. They must allow, and even embrace, discussions of Brown’s shooting, among other tragedies, because formal school settings and the support educators can provide often represent the best possible avenues through which children can confront complex issues like these.

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., concurs that banning the topic of Ferguson in schools is exactly the wrong approach. Instead he argues that precisely what is needed is a focus on bringing the real world into the classroom:

Beginning as early as the latter elementary years, schools should offer — no, require — age-appropriate cross-cultural studies that would, in effect, introduce us to us. Meaning not some airy fairy curriculum of achievements and accomplishments designed to impart some vague intra-cultural pride, but a hard-headed, warts and all American history designed to impart understanding of who we are, where we’re from and the forces that have made us — inner-city black, Appalachian white, barrio Mexican, whatever.

Children’s lives, including their schooling, have never been absent the weight of social tragedy. While we shouldn’t be nostalgic about a golden time when schools attended to each student’s every need, we must consider how the high-stakes environments of education have created almost no option for addressing the real world, which students cannot avoid, and must navigate first, in order to be successful students. Formal K-12 schooling must equip our youth for more than work and college; it must prepare them for living lives that can create a better world.

Reclaiming Civic Duties of Schools

During my 18 years teaching public high school English, tragedy interrupted our sacred commitment to “time on task” often enough—notably on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and on Sept. 11, 2001. Since these tragedies consumed media coverage, most teachers throughout my school turned on our classroom TVs and watched dark moments of history unfold before us with our students. I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when accountability based on standards and high-stakes tests was in its evolving years, but even then, teachers were directed and monitored for keeping students on task, teaching standards and preparing students for the tests.