When School Silence is Violence

Mark Twain once quipped that schools should not get in the way of educating our youth. When schools and/or districts choose to ignore massive forms of oppression because it is not convenient or comfortable to discuss, another form of injustice is established.

The recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile present educators with an opportunity to have dialogue with students about these incidents, but also about their feelings about safety.

Students know when they’re not safe.

Black students, especially males, are not safe in our society — too often at the very hands of those who are “sworn” to protect. Despite the fact that some educators may ignore it, our students know when they are not safe. And, if you have not realized it over the course of your career, long or short, you undoubtedly should know it by now.

As educators, we must acknowledge and address the issues that impede the feelings of safety and well-being of our students. There is a lot more attention to trauma and its impact on the brains and achievement levels of students. Don’t think for a second that trauma isn’t also experienced through the lens of police brutality.  Ignoring the persistent trauma and fleeting sense of security is harmful to our students’ well-being and student-educator relationships.


Everyone isn’t an expert at these tough conversations. But growth mindset doesn’t just apply to kids learning Common Core math. It more directly applies to adults needing to engage in the realities of their students.

So what should educators do?

  • Listen closely, and, don’t talk about yourself.
  • Ask questions with the intent to understand the students’ experience while simultaneously not asking our students to be our educators of Black experience. They are experts in their own experience. Ask how they feel and what it is like for them. Ask where they feel safe and with whom.
  • Ask those who know. If you are not familiar with how to broach the subject, ask someone. Counselors, social workers, and others have experience with having conversations about oppression and trauma. Access them. Be humble, but not dismissive. Not having the knowledge is not an excuse to avoid gaining it.
  • Don’t try to casually sweep the issue of police brutality under the rug. Educators often talk about the necessary and courageous conversations they have with colleagues, direct reports, etc. When you see your students, be prepared to have a courageous conversation about what they may be going through, what they are feeling, what they have experienced. Don’t disconnect school with life. It is hard to build trust when you ignore and evade massive issues that our communities experience.
  • Reinforce all the wonder and strength you see in the students. When I spoke to our community’s social worker, she realized that she needed to do this more to counteract all the negative messages and perceptions of how our Black students think white folks are thinking about them. Unless we are explicitly positive, our students may not know whether they are being judged. And there are so many negative messages they forget how wonderful they are. Be bold in telling your students, our students that they are wonderful and amazing.
  • Engage our youth. Understand the frustration our youth are experiencing. Support your students in classrooms and in the halls. Be on the lookout for students who need to talk. Experiencing state-sanctioned violence and watching videos of it are two different things and, yet, can have a similar impact on the psyche of adults, let alone our youth.
  • Ensure there is a safe space for students who need to talk in smaller group settings. Refer to professionals on your staff or in your district.
  • Don’t stop after one conversation. Students process grief at different times and in different ways. If educators imply that the time to discuss the issue of murdered Black men and women has “passed,” it will undermine the overall trust and safety that we want to establish in our schools.
  • Understand the intersectionality that exists with all oppression that impacts our youth. Lack of school funding, police brutality, poverty, racism and bias all have an interconnectedness and lasting impact. Acknowledge it and support students in navigating and dismantling the oppressive systems that impede their ultimate liberation. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring oppression in any form.
  • In a recent post, I posed the question that  William Hayes, founding member of The Fellowship asked, “Are educators liberators or overseers of the existing system?” By challenging ourselves to help students engage, ponder, and respond to institutional racism, police brutality, and injustice, we can support the notion of educators becoming liberators.
  • Be humble. Remember that we don’t give students voice, but we can support them in erecting a platform for its amplification. Support students in voicing their frustrations in productive and healing ways. Many may need our help in feeling whole. Educators should connect with families to determine how we can best provide support.
  • Self-care. Take care of yourself. Helping students’ liberation is hard. It is raw. To stand tall, be in touch with you.


Our community’s social worker shared a story with me about how she took a walk with a student — as she did daily.  The student asked the social worker if she felt safe walking in his neighborhood and told her all the things kids do to folks in the neighborhood. She asked him about feeling safe and he and a friend started sharing all the times the police have stopped them. Those are their stories of feeling unsafe. It felt so important that they have time and space to realize explicitly how messed up it is that the people who are supposed to keep them safe are targeting them.

At the end of the day, we ignore the oppression that impacts our students’ lives at our own peril. To the disconnected, these incidents may appear far, however, these incidents, the very oppressive system itself, hits much closer to home for many more of our students than you might think. Unfortunately, many of our students know police brutality from first or second-hand experiences.

When a tragedy directly hits a school community, often districts and staff rally around the school community to listen, comfort, and give advice. I would challenge us to use a similar pattern of support in response to the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Too often, schools and districts wish to project that schools are removed from the systemic oppression that occurs in our society.

When we ignore institutional racism, we become bastions for it.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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