Buffalo Schools Grapple with Racist Attack

fter 10 people were killed in a racist shooting at a Buffalo supermarket last week, Fatima Morrell knew the city’s educators could not avoid discussing the tragedy with students.

“We can’t shy away from the facts of the case,” says Morrell, the associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives in Buffalo public schools. “For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about.”

Morrell spearheaded the creation of the district’s Emancipation Curriculum in 2020, aiming to promote equity in schools, spark conversations about the legacy of racism in the U.S., and offer students diverse perspectives and more lessons about the historic ​​contributions of Black, Latino and indigenous communities.

During the last year, conservative groups and lawmakers have taken aim at that curriculum and others like it and have sought to restrict how race is discussed in school — efforts that free-speech advocates see as an attempt to whitewash history and prevent educators from teaching students about concepts like systemic racism.

The accused Buffalo gunman, who is white and targeted Black shoppers, left a manifesto in which he espoused white-supremacist views and cited a baseless, racist conspiracy theory about white Americans being “replaced” by Jews, immigrants, and people of color.

Morrell argues it’s important for schools across the nation to play a role in confronting that ideology and teaching students to combat racism, while offering social-emotional support for those who are grieving.

TIME spoke with Morrell about how schools are discussing the shooting with students and why the district’s anti-racist curriculum is so important today.

What has the district done to approach discussions on the Buffalo shooting with students and teachers?

This has been very difficult for the entire District community. You just don’t know how to respond to something like that right away, because it’s a shock. We decided to implement culturally-responsive healing circles as well as social-emotional training. All schools were providing a space for dialogue, with support going to teachers and principals on how to actually facilitate discussions around the trauma — How are you feeling? What can we do as a community and school to begin to heal? There was a lot of fear. There’s sadness, of course, and grief. However, young people are very fearful. Proms are a fear for them. They’re afraid of large gatherings of any sort right now. And so we’re trying to allay those fears, but then use it as a teachable moment to discuss how racism can lead to white supremacy. What can communities do to combat racism? What can we do to ensure all our children and all the people living in this district are proud of their human heritage, and treated with respect?

You can also say [the gunman]We came three hours from Buffalo to do this. However, we are aware that there is serious racial discrimination within our community. Communities of color are subject to economic, educational, and housing discriminities. The young man who was clearly misguided did not receive the care, nurturing, or compassion he needed to recognize the humanity of people of color.

It can also be called what it is: white supremacy and the belief that only one group of people are disposable. This is not a young child to me, but a teenage. You have to ask yourself: How did this happen? My experience has shown me the need to have a strong sense of urgency in educating white children. This is not just about [educating]Our Black and Brown children about their historical contributions and greatness. We also educate our White children on equity, cultural competence and acceptance.

Do you think this attack demonstrates the importance of an anti-racist education like Emancipation Curriculum?

This is the truth. We must now do a reset for every child, regardless of their race. We can’t shy away from the facts of the case. As difficult as it is to discuss, white supremacy must be unpacked for all of our children.

It is important to have an Emancipation Curriculum. Humanizing people of colour in the eyes is vital.

These attacks are happening over and over, so we need to reprogramme our youth and teach them love and humanity. We need to talk about what we have in common, that we’re all special, that we ought to be treated fairly, and make sure our students know that at the youngest ages possible.

You might be wondering what to make of efforts to limit how teachers talk about racism, perhaps making it more difficult for teachers to have discussions with students on this topic.

It is time to end political grandstanding. Critical race theory isn’t taught in any way. Historical truths, facts are historical truths. This is the history of our nation. It is our history as one nation that has been responsible for the atrocities committed against people of color.

Our young people, especially our white children, need to be educated around this, so that they don’t end up being like this young man who committed this horrific act. It is essential that they are educated.

Another thing that’s extremely dangerous is telling us what we can read and not read. We’re being censored in the classrooms, in schools, around what we can let our kids know. That’s not a democratic principle. It’s not freedom.

In the 2020-21 school years, you first introduced the Emancipation Curriculum. Why did you create this curriculum?

To begin with, we had done some equity and diversity work in our curriculum. Then George Floyd’s death, things changed. We set out to make a curriculum about systemic oppression as well as racism and Black Lives Matter.

We couldn’t ignore it. It was important to us to develop foundational teaching strategies that would center joy but also empathy, equity, and cultural relevance in our students’ lives. We also wanted to include Black and Brown voices in the curriculum.

We know that our students weren’t getting information about who they truly are or their greatness, to begin with. Buffalo public schools teachers make up 77%. Our students, however, are 86% of the population. We wanted our teachers to be able to incorporate the culture and history of Black and Brown children.

People will say, ‘We need to have more Black teachers in front of the students.’ And I like that concept. But we’ve got great teachers right now who are white, and they can teach well if they are given the tools, resources and professional learning that they need.

Some educators may prefer not to discuss this shooting during the week. Why do you think it’s important for educators to have these difficult conversations?

It should be part of every school’s ongoing conversations about racism. This should be part of every school’s curriculum. We need to talk about systemic racism and the dangers it poses. When you look at what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, when you look at what happened to Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, and then here in Buffalo — it’s dangerous to be racist. It’s dangerous to hate.

This is an opportunity to learn, so I urge all of our district leaders across the country and the nation to help teach children the importance of the human condition and the contributions that each person makes. Children see us, and they’re always watching. That is what we must remember. How we react as adults will determine how our children respond. So if we decide we’re just going to ignore this because I just don’t want to talk about it, they will go on the internet, find out from friends, and then weave their own narrative.

You’re not going to keep something of this magnitude, like systemic racism and white supremacy, from kids when it’s all over the news. And if they get the wrong answers from the wrong place, we’re in a dangerous space. So teach, teach. Don’t be afraid of it, or we’ll pay later.

This interview has been edited to be more concise.

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