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Ron Clark and other educators: Duty to speak out in police shootings

The back-to-back police shootings of Philando Castile, 32, in St. Paul, Minn., and Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge are prompting responses from the education community, including APS school board member and former APS teacher Matt WestmorelandNational Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and Ron Clark, co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta.

Shot dead in a routine traffic stop Wednesday, Castile was an employee  of Saint Paul Public Schools, which issued this statement today

Saint Paul Public Schools and its staff grieve the tragic death of a former student and current employee, Philando Castile. He graduated from Central High School in 2001 and had worked for Saint Paul Public Schools since he was 19-years-old, beginning in 2002, in the Nutrition Services Department.

Mr. Castile was promoted to a supervisory position two years ago and was currently working in one of our schools during the summer term.

Colleagues describe him as a team player who maintained great relationships with staff and students alike. He had a cheerful disposition and his colleagues enjoyed working with him. He was quick to greet former co-workers with a smile and hug.

One co-worker said, "Kids loved him. He was smart, over-qualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind. I knew him as warm and funny; he called me his 'wing man.'"

He wore a shirt and tie to his supervisor interview and said his goal was to one day "sit on the other side of this table." Those who worked with him daily said he will be greatly missed.

"I am deeply sorry for his family and for their loss. He's worked in SPPS for many years and he graduated from our district, so he was one of our own," said SPPS Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Grief counselors will be available for staff and students as needed or requested.

The Saint Paul Public Schools family extends its deepest sympathy to Mr. Castile's family and loved ones.

Here is Lily Eskelsen García's statement:

Black lives matter. Today we mourn for the lost lives of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Their senseless and tragic deaths have shocked the conscience of our nation. We are working with our state affiliates in Louisiana and Minnesota to offer support to the families and communities affected by this tragedy.

For the sake of our children, our communities, and future generations to come, we must sharpen our resolve to end this vicious cycle of racial violence. We must stand united in defense of racial and social justice, and work to end intolerance in our society. This action must happen in our schools, communities, among our parents, educators, and with our youth.

Our students will immediately feel the emotional impact of the police shootings of Sterling and Castile. They’ve seen the horrific videos on social media. Their trust in law-and-order institutions is broken. Feeling frightened and confused, they will ask questions. Powerless about what they see and read, they will turn to adults to seek answers. As educators, it is our responsibility to our students and our communities to stand up and speak up when confronted with injustice and institutional racism wherever we see it.

At the same time, we also need to make sure that those who perpetrated the fatal shootings of these men are held accountable. We applaud the U.S. Department of Justice for agreeing to look into the police killing of Sterling. We urge the department to also look into the police shooting of Castile. There cannot be a path to peace unless justice is served.

Here is Ron Clark's Facebook statement:

My heart breaks when I think how the beautiful and strong students I work with are basically one bullet away from becoming a ‪#‎hashtag.

I see racism through a different view; I'm a white man who watches my students as they are treated with caution, disdain and misunderstanding. Views of who they are formed instantly by their appearance, and brilliant young children are often frowned upon as being thugs. I tell my students to say “yes sir” and to smile when dealing with the police and that everything will be okay, but I am losing faith in my own advice.

I can tell you all, white privilege is real because I experience it both in noticing how I am treated and how those who don't look like me are mistreated. When only white people are in the room some people feel comfortable to make horrible and stupid comments, and the biggest problem is that they aren't even aware of their ignorance. We, as white people, have to be leaders in this movement to end the racism and misunderstandings. If only African-Americans speak, I promise you, people only hear the "angry black people who are being ridiculous." It takes white people to have the courage to speak up when you hear racism and let others know it's not acceptable. The cops out there who are racist have had their thoughts fed into them by family members and friends who were also raised to have those thoughts. People aren't born racist; their community makes them racist.

We, as part of the community, have a duty to stand up and speak out. We all must stand against ignorance and let our voices and options be heard before those we love become ‪#‎hashtags as well.

Posts like this by African-Americans are seen in the eyes of many as angry rants. Posts like this from white people will be looked at differently. It is our obligation to stand up.

Where are the white people at?

Don't be silent.

Here are APS school board member Matt Westmoreland's comments: 

I keep thinking about Aiden. And how I have to do more.

I met Aiden earlier this summer. His boisterous personality is one that may occasionally exhaust his mother and frustrate his teachers, but it immediately endeared him to me.

I keep thinking about Aiden this week. He is six, so he doesn't know about the horrific shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights.

But Aiden is six. And one day he will be 12 like Tamir Rice. Then 17 like Trayvon Martin. Then 18 like Michael Brown. Then 25 like Freddie Gray. Then 32 like Philando Castile. Then 33 like Walter Scott. Then 37 like Alton Sterling. Then 43 like Eric Garner.

I keep thinking about Aiden. And Lamarcus. And Deuce. And those young men I taught at Carver who became like younger brothers-- Dreundre. Antavious. James. Jaqavious. Antone. Marquavius. Dorian.

I think about the world they live in. It's a world that affords me immense privilege because of my race, class and gender. I think it's important to recognize that-- and to say it out loud. Because it's voices like mine, and folks who like me, that need to say more and do more.

Today we rightfully grieve the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But we also need to talk about an education system where quality varies by zip code, a justice system where punishments vary based on the color of your skin, an income gap that grows wider each year. It's all of those things, collectively, that rip apart families, devastate communities, and silence voices

Two years ago, after the shooting of Michael Brown and as I struggled with the world my Carver kids and their peers were growing up in, I turned to a quote from Mike Johnston about "truth and hope." Seems we've had a far heavier dose of the former recently.

This morning, I came across new words from Mike after the shootings this week:

"Somewhere we have internalized the corrosive lesson that different types of Americans deserve different degrees of life, liberty and happiness. That is not the country we promised to build. If we are to change the America our kids grow up in, we must unlearn that lesson, and we must unlearn it now. And those who benefit most from that current belief must be the ones to lead the unlearning. And that means us."

I keep thinking about Aiden. And how we have to do more.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.