At this point in the school year, Lacrissha Walton typically focuses her humanities classes on the 50 US states and their capitals. But last week the Minneapolis teacher scribbled a question unrelated to geography on her fourth-grade class whiteboard: “Did you watch Derek Chauvin’s trial?”
While the murder trial of Mr Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, might not appear to be age-appropriate instruction for the 9-year-olds, Ms Walton said she was felt compelled to use the event as a teachable moment. All of his students had seen their city devoured by the protests in the months following Mr Floyd’s fatal arrest, and some had seen the widely-circulated video, filmed by a teenager, which captured his violent death in slow motion.
“No little kid should watch this,” Ms. Walton said. “But when it’s broadcast all over the news, they have questions.”
In Minneapolis, educators have wondered over the past few weeks how to approach the trial with their students, with some using jury selection or testimony as an opportunity to explore complex issues of race, policing and of the criminal justice system. Teachers carefully gave students the opportunity to ask questions and share their opinions during class. And administrators and school counselors have planned talking circles, where children can speak out about how the lawsuit rekindled feelings of racial trauma and fears of potential trouble.
When Ms Walton, who teaches at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, where most of the students are black, asked her class what she knew about the trial, the children effortlessly explained who Mr Chauvin was and his role. in the death of Mr. Floyd. They knew that the person running the courtroom is called a judge, and their voices rang out in unison when asked to describe the 12 people who would deliver the judgment: “the jury.”
After Ms. Walton asked which students thought Mr. Chauvin was guilty, many small hands were raised. When asked why, a girl named Keyly presented a devastating assessment of the defendant’s actions at the heart of the trial.
“He put his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “And George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe a few times and the cop hadn’t listened to him at all.
The adult nature of the televised murder trial, marked by graphic videos and emotional testimonies, poses a challenge to educators. In Texas, a predominantly black high school teacher showed freshmen a live broadcast of the classroom trial, including footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, and asked them to act as as bogus jurors, prompting complaints from parents who said the project was being awarded without their consent.
Ms Walton said she received approval from the school administration to show brief parts of the court proceedings in class, but due to the traumatic elements of the trial she was careful not to let her students see and hear anything too graphic or disturbing.
Across Minneapolis, where nearly seventy percent of public school students are not white, discussions about the essay have taken place in classrooms and online learning. Kristi Ward, principal of grades three to eight at Lake Nokomis Community School, said months of racial justice conversations, as well as the city’s more recent efforts to fortify the courthouse, made it impossible to l ‘ignore. So she worked with her staff on developing ways to spark meaningful discussions with their students, who are 60% white, even if difficult questions arise.
“We have to engage even if we are uncomfortable and don’t have the answers,” she said. “I tell them to stay on top of the trial to make sure they understand the facts, and then just lean into the conversation rather than walk away.”
Tom Lachermeier, who teaches social studies at North Community High School, where the student body is 90% black, called the trial a “living history.” Mr Floyd’s death, he said, hit those who attend the school, located in a neighborhood long trapped in poverty and the city’s worst gang violence.
After the Minneapolis School Board voted in June to end his contract with the Police Department, North Community High head football coach Charles Adams lost his day job as an in-house police officer. school. Mr Lachermeier acknowledged that many schools across the country have avoided court proceedings altogether, but said that as a white man he knew he had to address the trial with his students.
“I don’t say anything about it says a lot,” he said. Before the trial, he covered the daily jury selection procedures during class hours and listened to the number of his students who feared Mr. Chauvin would be acquitted. The students have been on hiatus since the start of the trial, but he says he discussed it in the early days with the softball players he coached.
Kyree Wilson, 16, a junior in Mr. Lachermeier’s US history class, said the lessons motivated her to watch trial hours on YouTube while off school. “It’s a real eye-opener,” she said of the trial and the cases described by defense lawyers and prosecutors, although the heart-wrenching testimony was “quite difficult to resolve.”
As Mr. Floyd was face down on the sidewalk, handcuffed, Kyree was two blocks away, handing out flyers for a modern dance company, she said. She could hear the commotion of the growing crowd that had gathered, although she did not learn what had happened until she returned home later that day. Over the summer, she attended protests and said she hoped Mr. Chauvin would be found guilty.
But the more Kyree learned from the trial, the more convinced she was that a conviction would do little to stop the police brutality, she said. “The justice system is very broken and it is being used against African Americans,” she said. “This situation scares me of adulthood and growing up in America.”
Although the trial began when the Lake Nokomis Community School in southern Minneapolis was during spring break, sixth-grade math teacher Amanda Martinson said her students knew it would start soon. So she devoted time in class to answering their questions and concerns, she said, recalling some who mentioned the helicopters flying over the city, and a video sent by a student of military vehicles driving down their street.
“A lot of our students are worried about what might happen throughout this trial because of everything that happened after George Floyd was killed,” Martinson said. “Children are afraid of fires, loud noises at night and all kinds of commotion.”
In Ms. Walton’s fourth-grade class, the trial was also used to teach lessons on important civic concepts such as the right to protest and how the justice system works. “Someday they might have jury duty,” she said. “So you are entitled to your opinion, but when you have to work with 11 other people, how are you going to do that?”
Shortly after school ended last week, 9-year-old Janiyah said her mother took her to a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. She described a mixture of anger and sadness that she said she felt when she learned of Mr. Floyd’s death. Although she had not seen the video of her fatal arrest or spoken to her mother about Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Janiyah understood the huge impact it could have on the nation’s fight for racial justice.
“I really hope they watch her,” Janiyah said of the police officers who might have a fatal encounter with a black person, “and then understand that one of the costs is that they could go to jail.”