Some of Edward Tillman’s friends have avoided watching footage of the killing of George Floyd — the 46-year-old black man a Minneapolis police officer suffocated last week while placing him under arrest.
But when the recording appeared on his Twitter timeline, Tillman watched the graphic video in its entirety — to his utter horror. Although he’s just 17, the African American 12th grader felt a responsibility to witness the killing that has sparked days of protest and civil unrest nationally.
“After I saw it, I was distraught,” he said. “To me, what the officer did was preposterous. I thought it was insane.”
In addition to feeling outraged and shocked, Tillman feared that his little brothers, both under age 10, might one day have violent encounters with police. As a student at Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets High School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Tillman would like to have more opportunities to discuss systemic inequality in class and to receive counseling for trauma from the district’s mental health professionals. Teachers too often gloss over issues of social injustice, if they bring them up at all, he said, and accessing mental health services on campus hasn’t been easy.
This week, however, education officials across California — including district superintendents, school board presidents and teachers’ union leaders — expressed the need for educators to address racial inequity and to support students grappling with racist police violence and social injustice.
“We must invest in our most vulnerable students, including expanded mental health supports and robust ethnic studies programs to empower Black students with the potency of their own stories,” said the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles in a statement released Tuesday with the headline: As Long as Black People Can’t Breathe, We Won’t Rest.
The release noted how African American students are disproportionately placed in foster care, suspended from school, or raised by others while their parents are incarcerated.
In his statement Monday about George Floyd, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner discussed the need for culturally relevant teaching and for educators to demonstrate that black lives matter. Asserting that teachers serve as role models to students, he pointed out how black men statewide are underrepresented in the California State University’s teaching programs. CSU is the largest four-year college system in the U.S., and the five campuses in the Los Angeles-area (Los Angeles, Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, and Northridge) collectively had just 85 black male students enrolled in their teacher and educator preparation programs during the 2019-20 school year, according to a CSU spokesperson.
As school officials vow to support youth of color following the police killings of Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky – among so many others – a shortage of black educators, particularly black male educators, means the students most at risk of enduring systemic racism have few school personnel they can turn to for comfort who share their life experiences.
By discussing current events, intervening when interracial conflicts occur, and leaving time during instruction for students to broach any subject, black teachers told The Imprint in interviews this week that they have created safe spaces for students of color. They also said the support needs to be broad–based: For the emotional needs of these youth to be consistently met, educators of all colors must get comfortable discussing race, and school districts must ensure that black and brown students have reliable mental health resources.
Black Teachers Make a Difference
As teachers were struggling to stay connected to students after school went online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest that swept the United States during the last weekend of May further complicated class time. Clarence Manson’s students at New Designs Charter Schools in L.A.’s Exposition Park neighborhood logged into class Monday concerned about their country’s future.
“What’s going to happen next?” they pressed, unsure if returning to normal was possible after the widespread protests objecting to Floyd’s killing. It was hardly the first time his students have come to class distressed about social injustice, according to Manson, who teaches 10th grade English and theater arts to grades 9 through 12.
“They have told me a few times how disgusted they were about the actions of the police,” he said. “They talk about Donald Trump and how he handles or doesn’t handle situations. A lot of my students are very political.”
Mostly Latino and African American, some of his students have had their own unsettling experiences with police, while others have followed news coverage about police brutality. They know about the most well-known cases of police violence, as well as the incidents that haven’t garnered national attention.
Last year, for example, Manson’s students were outraged when Emerald Black, an African American woman, accused San Leandro police officers of causing her to miscarry after stomping on her pregnant stomach during a traffic stop. That case is back in the news after Black filed a lawsuit against the city on May 25, the same day that Minneapolis police killed Floyd.
“Sometimes, I have to throw out whatever the agenda was I had for class that day,” Manson said, “because the students ask to talk about what’s happening in the news.”
Even when he doesn’t have to set his lesson plan aside, Manson always reserves time during the last minutes of class for students to ask him about any topic they want. This strategy has made them feel comfortable discussing the political issues that affect their communities. Although he is African American, Manson said that students still had to suss him out to see if they could trust him enough to raise their concerns about inequity.
“I think there are a number of teachers who try to play it safe in class,” he added, “or just are not equipped to handle that kind of conversation.”
Having teachers of color in the classroom has been linked to a number of benefits for youth of color – and given the times, community leaders are calling for renewed attention to these data. A 2016 Indiana University study found that black students are three times more likely to be identified as gifted when they have black teachers. A year later, American University-led researchers reported their findings that when black boys in grades 3 through 5 have even one black teacher, their odds of dropping out of high school decrease by half. Black students are also less likely to be suspended or expelled — forms of discipline that increase their chances of entering the criminal justice system — when they have black teachers, according to a prominent peer-reviewed journal.
Yet, the percentage of teachers who are black nationally dropped from 8.2% to 6.7% between 1987 and 2015, and just 2% of all U.S. teachers are black men. In California, only 1.2% of teachers are black males, a statistic so grim that the California State University system has multiple recruiting programs specifically for male teachers of color.
Now, the absence of such teachers is sorely felt during a time when the police killing of a black man has dominated national discourse and, as Beutner put it, educators are needed more than ever to “help students try to understand this hateful act and the context in which it is occurring.”
LAUSD, the California Department of Education, Long Beach Unified School District, and other large school systems in the state have all announced plans to meet the emotional needs of students in the wake of Floyd’s killing, but without black men in the classroom, students will go without a critical viewpoint, Manson argued.
“Teaching is all about widening perspectives; it’s all about changing your view,” he said. “In a racially diverse country, we need viewpoints that are just as diverse. Because there are not that many black male teachers, that perspective, that viewpoint, goes unheard.”
As one of three black male teachers on a faculty of more than 40 at Northridge Academy High School in the San Fernando Valley, English teacher Jason Black is also concerned about the dearth of educators like him statewide and nationwide. He said students need more black role models, especially because racial injustice is a constant in society. The recent police killings of African Americans such as Floyd, Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade are not anomalies, Black said. “They happen all the time.”
Still, his students are feeling the gravity of recent events, with some admitting to “feeling very scared,” others saying they want to join in the “rioting,” and a few explaining that the “looting” angers them.
“School districts should have some programs and make services available for students to voice their frustrations,” Black said. “When something in society is affecting me, I know it’s affecting them, too. I’ve told them how, even though it’s been a really tough week, we can get through these emotions.”
Supporting the Mental Health of Black Students
After COVID-19 forced California on lockdown in March, LAUSD announced that it had set up a mental health hotline for students and their families. And over the past five years, California’s three largest school districts — Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach — have funneled millions of dollars into hiring more psychiatric workers and school psychologists, partnering with mental health organizations, and training teachers on trauma-informed instruction. Despite these efforts, some youth, parents, and teachers say districts need to take more action to meet students’ mental health needs.
Jerlene Tatum, an African American parent of four children attending Long Beach schools, said that, at a recent Long Beach school board meeting, she discussed how important it was for the district to invest in emotional support for students — even as proposed state budget cuts threaten to make it harder for districts to prioritize such funding.
“We need to create spaces for dialogue and train teachers to identify the emotional baggage children bring into the classroom,” Tatum said. “Any child who saw the murder of George Floyd is going to need help.”
She also noted that black parents and teachers are experiencing trauma themselves after Floyd’s death, all while having to report to work, take care of children and manage their own reactions to racial injustice. During other periods of public outrage about systemic racism, her eldest child, a 12th grader, has shared his frustrations and angst with teachers and administrators. Black educators, by far, have had the biggest impact on him. “He’s always held them in the highest esteem,” Tatum said.
Having grown up without a father at home, Tillman, who’s headed to San Diego State University, appreciates the three black male teachers he’s had during his K-12 career. One in particular acted as a mentor when he was in the ninth and 10th grades, he said. In addition to black teachers, the 12th grader would have appreciated better access to mental health services on campus.
“I know personally, for myself, it’s always good to get things off my mind,” said Tillman, a member of the youth activist group Students Deserve. “Sometimes, I want to talk to a therapist, and my peers feel the same. I think having more psychiatric social workers at my school would be beneficial. We have one, but she’s not there all the time. I think there should be resources readily available 24/7.”
Karla Payes is a black psychiatric social worker at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a campus with four high schools near downtown Los Angeles. While no students have contacted her about Floyd’s killing, she has heard from teachers looking for ways to discuss in class the traumatic racial events that have set the entire nation on edge.
“I’m not black. Should I bring it up? Should I not bring it up?” teachers have asked her.
Payes is telling teachers to recognize that students are currently feeling fear, dismay and anger. These emotions don’t mean they can’t participate in a class discussion about Floyd’s killing and the civil unrest that’s followed. She recommends that educators set up ground rules for dialogue, respect everyone’s point of view, and be factual about the events that have transpired. Teachers can also encourage students to engage in social action, be it a protest or calling out a racist remark.
“They can journal or write down their feelings,” Payes added, “and turn off social media if it gets to be too much.”
For years, Deven Callum, a former teaching assistant and football coach, was one of the few black men at the same downtown school. On staff from 2008 to 2019, Callum said that non-black colleagues and administrators regularly asked him to intervene when conflicts arose with black male students. At times, he sensed that some of his co-workers felt uncomfortable interacting with black youth.
“I feel like there’s advantages to being an African American male teacher that a lot of other men don’t have,” he said. “I feel comfortable teaching everyone—black kids, Latino kids, white kids, Asian kids.”
Callum, who is working on a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential from Cal State Long Beach, said he had the benefit of having multiple black teachers as a youth in the Pasadena Unified School District. He was in middle school when civil unrest swept Los Angeles in 1992 and remembers his black teachers discussing the outrage that the police beating of motorist Rodney King sparked in communities of color.
“They tell a different story,” he said of black teachers. “They can relate to you not just as a teacher but through the personal situations they’ve been in. They live through the same things as their students.”
Nadra Nittle is a freelance reporter and can be reached at [email protected].