The tragic loss of Michael Brown presents an opportunity to help students connect with our collective humanity.

#dontshoot is one of several haunting hashtags that appeared after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old student fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. The hashtag often appears linked to posted and tweeted photographs of African Americans with their arms held up to signal that they are unarmed. The number of these photos circulating has increased steadily in the days since Brown’s death, as the details of the shooting slowly emerge and a community rife with grief and frustration protests the tragic loss of a young person.

Michael Brown could have been my student. Some years ago, I taught at Normandy Middle School in the school district from which “Big Mike” graduated. Students in the Normandy School District confront a host of issues and concerns that directly impact student achievement, including woefully inadequate resources and high rates of poverty and crime in their neighborhoods and municipalities. Recently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education dismantled the school district due to inadequate yearly progress, creating in its wake the Normandy Schools Collective.

Despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances, many of my colleagues continue to provide a quality education to their students. I am proud to have taught in Normandy School District and proud of the district’s students and of my colleagues.

This should have been a time of celebration for Brown, a young man who overcame the obstacles inherent in this flawed educational system. Despite being a credit short when he walked in May, he received his high school diploma on August 1 and was scheduled to enroll at Vatterott College on August 11. Instead, he lay dead in the middle of a city street, shot down between an auspicious end and a bright beginning.

Reflecting upon the significance of another African-American man dead after an altercation with law enforcement (let us not forget Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen and Eric Garner, killed only weeks before), I am left wondering what we are teaching our students—not only our students in predominantly African-American schools, but all students across the United States. Racism does double duty. It harms us all in very real ways.

Jennings School District was forced to push back the first day of school as a precautionary measure due to community protests and riots after Brown’s death. Ferguson-Florissant School District, where protesting continues, has postponed the first day of school. The students in these districts are hearing the message that we handle race, racism and racial tensions in the United States by avoiding them. Brown’s death and the outpouring of protest it ignited is symbolic of racial tensions that have festered for too long. Instead of internalizing the events in Ferguson as racial protocol in our nation, students should be taught to be the voices of change and the enactors of justice.

It is incumbent upon all of us—in all communities, in all schools, and regardless of racial demographics—to teach students compassion for their peers. This includes the peers they sit beside and their peers in Normandy, Ferguson, Jennings and beyond. This isn’t just a learning lesson for African-American students; it is a learning lesson for all students.

Every student matters.

Students across the country are beginning a new school year. Some will mature into law enforcement officers, healthcare professionals, service industry workers and civil employees. Educators have a unique opportunity to begin bridging the social chasms that divide us by fostering honest dialogue with these future adults. Schools can become the places where students learn to interrogate racial biases—and any biases—to restore our collective humanity.

One resource that supports an open and honest dialogue is Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework (ABF). The ABF offers K-12 standards that empower students to stand up against prejudice and injustice, to express empathy and compassion and to take action for a better world.

Healing can begin in our schools. Perhaps next year, retuning students will be using the hashtag:


Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

Christian is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance.