Stifled Support: How Our Silence on Police Brutality Affects the Mental Health of Our Students

By Isaiah Moore

Stifled Support: How Our Silence on Police Brutality Affects the Mental Health of Our StudentsWith the reading of the Derek Chauvin verdict, two things came to mind for me: how happy I am that justice was served for George Floyd’s family and that I am actually feeling miserable. One wouldn’t expect these two contrasting emotions to coexist. Recently, I found it to be possible.

I thought about the young lady whom I wrote of in a previous post who was so shook up seeing the atrocious snatching of a Black life on television that she bypassed texting friends and emailed her teacher. My heart bleeds for that student because for her, the damage is already done. It’s as if she is watching a never-ending horror film that delivers a new nightmare every day. There are the most recent slayings of Andrew Brown, Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio; and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. These occurrences spur kids to delve deeper into the problem. When our kids research, they read about similar heinous acts unjustly forced on Black bodies, such as Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, and more. There are so many, I can’t keep count.

As a Black male educator, I find this demoralizing. With every word I type, most notably the names of those we’ve lost, my spirit is dampened. Since I decided on this blog topic, I have experienced short periods of movement with regular interruptions. The emotional traffic of my mind simply won’t allow my writing to flow. I must constantly monitor my feelings and reduce those that may inhibit daily tasks like getting to work on time, communicating effectively with a variety of people, and preparing for the future. This is challenging—and I am an adult.

My mind wanders back to the young lady mentioned above. If I struggle with dealing with these issues as an adult, I am quite sure that she, a preteen who has not fully developed her social and emotional skills, is probably struggling. How is she dealing with these atrocious acts? How is she making sense of the racism she sees? Most importantly, how is it affecting her?

Some Black students are navigating these traumatic events and the racist systems that enable them alone, and this is having a pernicious effect. Dr. Claire McCarthy, senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, states, “Racism and its effects can lead to chronic stress for children.” Dr. David R. Williams, affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health, further expounds on these effects by asserting “that discrimination is positively associated with measures of depression and anxiety symptoms and psychological distress, as well as with defined psychiatric disorders.”

This evidence highlights but a few adverse effects of discrimination and traumatic events. They have the ability to alter our students’ lives for the worse if not adequately addressed. This is especially important for Black students, who are consistently classified as the low performers in disproportionality data. Teachers must step up.

Am I advocating for each teacher to personally dismantle structural racism? Of course not. That task is far beyond the means of one person. A more reasonable approach would be to alleviate the microaggression of silence in our classrooms. School-age students are especially susceptible to adverse effects of discrimination because their developmental growth depends on social interaction and support. They are still new to navigating their emotions and those of others. They need someone to mull over their feelings with, and most often, they need that person to initiate the conversation.

This does not mean that teachers must make daily announcements denouncing every instance of injustice, but it does mean that teachers should not gloss over them. Just as we see the horrific images of structural racism play out on our televisions, so do students. Sara Jaffee, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, asserts that the continual viewing and experiencing of these happenings is like “conversations in literature on post-traumatic stress disorder about someone being retraumatized by re-exposure to images of the person or thing that originally victimized him or her.”

Starting class the next morning as if nothing happened is a major fault. This is especially true for students who relate closely to such events because of shared experience. Avoidance of the issue only seems to widen the gap between teacher and Black student. As one student stated after the George Floyd killing, “My teachers didn’t say anything, so I thought they didn’t care about it or me.”

Judging from this response, it is safe to assume this student felt ignored. A Norfolk Public Schools school counselor, Dr. Sammie L. Logan III, who has more than fifteen years experience and familiarity with the incident explained why that occurrence was particularly harmful. He says that, “Ignoring is typically used as a sign of punishment. It negates the existence of the ignored. In this case, it minimized what was important to the student thus negating their values, their opinion, and their experiences.” Ignoring had a negative impact on the student’s school experience and caused anxiety in further interactions with the teacher. As a result, learning in that classroom became a great challenge. Interruptions in education are a hindrance to the optimal future for any child, and, I would argue, could be catastrophic for a Black child who is dealing with the effects of institutionalized racism.

To prevent students from dealing with traumatic issues on their own and developing destructive anger towards those around them, or to help soften the blow of retraumatization, teachers must not keep silent for their own comfort. Silence breeds discomfort in those we serve. We must do two things to ensure that our kids’ mental health does not suffer from lack of support when faced with racism:

First, teachers must step out of their comfort zone. Assure students, particularly those more susceptible to discrimination and its effects, of your support. Simply letting them know that you see what is going on and you’re there to listen is extremely beneficial. Even if you don’t agree on a certain topic, be open-minded and empathetic enough to hold students up in moments that negatively affect their mental health.

Second, administrators must continue to advocate for multicultural and anti-racist training for staff. While some educators are adept at responding to students in crisis, a great many are not. Use the staff who do have these skills as mentors for those who do not. The goal should be to equip all staff with the skills to help students.

Now that the Chauvin verdict has been rendered and some semblance of accountability has been served, we must ask, “What’s next?” I would answer, “There is much left.” For starters, think of all the names mentioned above. Their cases are sure to be brought to a court—either of the government or of public opinion. Just the thought of this brings me angst. I simply wish that the injustices of racism, individual or systemic, would cease to exist. I wish that the associated effects would disappear. But in order to get there, or at least maintain forward progression, we must all do our part to dismantle oppression. It’s a big task, but it can be achieved by many small feats.

Our course of action as educators is to deal with our own discomfort and support our kids in the face of these situations. The mental health of our Black kids depends on it. We may not see it now, but our voice of support will pay dividends in helping them destroy the remnants of inequity as future leaders.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.

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