Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Another white supremacist rally and a shooting threat pose mounting challenges for administrators and teachers.
When teachers in Charlottesville, Virginia, faced the first day of school nearly two months ago, they were reeling from the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally 11 days earlier, on August 12, when white supremacists descended on the college town to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. One demonstrator rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Dozens more were injured in that incident and others.
Last week brought another protest, coinciding with the Charlottesville High School homecoming dance. Though this rally was smaller, white supremacists returned to the Lee statue, carrying torches and chanting, “You will not replace us.” At the high school, 2.5 miles away, Principal Eric Irizarry was concerned for the students’ safety. “Many of our students who were at the dance live close to the area where the rally was,” he says. “How would we get them home safely?” When the rally dispersed before the dance did, Irizarry was relieved. “I’m glad it ended without a major incident,” he says.
Irizarry’s hope was that things would then calm down. But just a few days later, a man posted a threat on social media in which he spoke admiringly of the Las Vegas shooter and proclaimed that Charlottesville schools should be the next target. Officials put the city’s schools on a modified lockdown, meaning that exterior and interior doors remained locked throughout the day, and students were mainly kept in their classrooms. The FBI ultimately determined that the man who made the threat was out of state and the students were not in danger; still, Charlottesville police officers remained stationed at schools the following day as a precaution.
How are Charlottesville school administrators and teachers handling such frightening and divisive times? In August, Superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools Rosa Atkins made resources available, such as articles on how to talk to children about violence and books that are helpful for leading discussions about race.
Individual teachers also tailored their curricula to address the recent events. They continue to use these materials. At Charlottesville High, the English department, for instance, has been teaching the novel The Hate U Give, about a black teenager who witnesses a white police officer shoot her unarmed, black best friend. Irizarry says that’s helping. “The novel has given a platform for students to express their feelings, whether specific to the events of August 12 or in general,” he says.
Irizarry says teachers are now adjusting curricula and discussions to help students process what happened last week. The counseling team is also more visible, and is checking on students who may be particularly affected by these subsequent events. “It seemed like we were heading in a better direction, that maybe healing could begin,” says Irizarry. “But then these other events occurred.”
He says that he and his fellow administrators are also adapting to a job that now requires them to keep an eye on what’s happening outside of the school, while also making sure that kids are learning. “It’s been difficult,” he says, adding that another priority is keeping parents constantly informed. “They need to be reassured that we’re doing everything we can to keep their kids safe.”
Irizarry says the recent ordeals have sparked dialogue among students that’s been largely productive and respectful. And Charlottesville schools haven’t seen the kinds of flare-ups, such as incidents of racist graffiti, that many schools across the country have experienced over the past months.
Irizarry attributes this in part to the diversity of Charlottesville schools. (At Irizarry’s school, as in schools across the city, about half the pupils are students of color.) While he says his high school isn’t a utopia and that it deals with issues of race and class like any city or school, the demographics mean that students are seeing peers from other backgrounds on a daily basis.
“It’s easier for students to have empathy for different groups when they’re interacting with them all the time,” Irizarry says. Such empathy will likely help Charlottesville students navigate more racist events in their city. Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who has spearheaded the rallies, told the city’s NBC station last week, “We will be back again.”