While a Baltimore jury deadlocked over the fate of Officer William Porter last week, teachers in city schools used the case to teach social studies lessons. Now that court officials have scheduled a new trial for Porter, one of six city police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, city teachers will continue to use what happens inside the courtroom as a learning tool for their students.
City teachers and students braced for a verdict in Porter’s trial last week, but it ended Wednesday with a hung jury and a mistrial. On Friday, in Brianna Carter’s first period, 10th grade social studies class at Digital Harbor High School the trial provided a chance to talk about central themes in her class, like due process and the Constitution.
City schools CEO Dr. Gregory Thornton warned students in a letter that walkouts, vandalism, civil disorder, and violence are “not acceptable under any circumstances. "That prompted a discussion about the outcome of the trial and whether walking out of class is a form of civil disobedience within students’ constitutional rights. One student called walking out an expression of the first amendment:"... because you're pretty much just using your speech but If you use it violently than it’s not exactly peaceful," said Isaiah, a tenth grade student.
Carter tried to focus her students’ attention on legitimate responses to possible outcomes of the trial. She asked her class: "When does it cross the line where this civil disobedience no longer seems to be seeking justice but it goes a little bit too far?"
One student responded, "When it turns into a riot."
Carter prompted: "What’s the distinction between a riot and a protest?"
Another student answered, "A riot is when you're messing things up: crashing cars, stealing. Basically fighting and all that other stuff. A protest is when you have your pickets up, you’re marching for something you’re believe in."
Hassan Charles, the school system’s executive director of engagement, says officials focused on safety last week as they prepared for the trial. "First, how do we prepare staff. Second, what do we do to support students and last how are we preparing our school buildings," summarized Charles.
Charles says the city made sure that schools officers and volunteers were available between classes, at bus stops and along school routes, that social workers were free to work in schools, and that principals focused on guided ways for students to express themselves, through assemblies and discussions in class. "We wanted to ensure that teachers were having classroom discussions regarding social justice issues. It is our expectation that our students be educated citizens around these issues." Charles continued, "We provided teachers with resources and encouraged them to tailor them to individual lesson plans in particular regarding pre-trial motions and jury selection process."
High school teacher Brianna Carter saw a chance for her students to learn not just from the trials, but from April’s unrest. "I am all for safety because I don’t want any of our kids being hurt at all, but I’m also for education so that students understand what is within their rights and what is not."
And she's not just trying to teach lessons from events of the past 6 months, she’s using her classroom to thread the present with the past. Her 9th grade American History students are studying displacement in the Sharp Leadenhall neighborhood, a community that’s population declined sharply in the 1960's due to urban renewal. Carter pushed her students to connect their projects to real world issues: "I have it on the board: so what are all the issues the media began talking about after the Freddie Gray case and after the rioting: we have riots vs protests, crime, racism, police brutality and poverty...," she says. "And so we’re connecting all of it together. They are understanding the power of a collective voice especially as it relates to the black community."
For teachers like Brianna Carter, the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray are a chance to ask students hard questions, and she hopes cultivate the next generation of critical thinkers.