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Cleveland Schools Brace for Verdict in Police Shooting Case

By Evie Blad

This post first appeared on the Rules for Engagment blog

Cleveland educators are working to anticipate their students' needs for support and a place to process their emotions as the city braces for a verdict in the high-profile Michael Brelo police shooting case, which touches on larger conversations about race, justice, and the role of police that are happening in Cleveland and around the country.

In an April 30 letter to teachers, Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon and the head of Cleveland's teachers' union outlined plans for safety, scheduling, and classroom conversation guides that can be used both in advance of the verdict and after. That letter also mentioned events in Baltimore, where some students gathered to throw rocks at police officers as the community waited for answers about the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who was injured in police custody.

"Over the next few days, both before the verdict is announced and especially when it is announced, please take time to help your students find their voice on the difficult issues our community is facing," the Cleveland letter said. "Please take time to talk with your students about how they might be feeling, how they think students should or could respond, why they think students in Baltimore may have responded in the way they did, what students might be able to do in a positive way to make their voices heard, etc."

The Brelo Case

Brelo, a Cleveland police officer, faces manslaughter charges for his role in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, a black man and woman who were both unarmed when they were shot by officers following a 2012 police chase. Cleveland.com has a good summary of the case, in which police mistook the sound of a car backfiring for a gunshot, leading as many as 62 police cars to follow the two on a high-speed chase, which ended in gunfire.

"In the end, 13 police officers shot 137 bullets at Russell and Williams," Cleveland.com reports. "Russell was hit 23 times, and Williams was hit 24 times. Both were declared dead by 11:24 p.m." An investigation found that Brelo, who is white, jumped onto the hood of the vehicle, shooting directly at Russell and Williams.

The verdict will be the latest in a series of high-profile events related to how Cleveland police relate to the city's residents.

In 2014, the Department of Justice announced that it had found a "pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force" by Cleveland police. Many students are also very shaken by the death of classmate Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot by police in 2014, teachers told me when I was in the schools for a reporting trip last week.

In that context, it makes sense that the district would want to prepare for the Brelo verdict, which could set off an emotional response.

Lessons From Baltimore

After some students reacted violently in Baltimore April 27, reactions from others continued to intensify until rioters burned cars and businesses later that night, and the district made a late decision to close schools the following day.

Gordon said Cleveland's actions weren't about making sure that students "comply, and behave or that we don't have a space to discuss this." Rather, the district wants to support teachers in acknowledging thoughts that students are already having inside and outside the classroom, he said.

"We want to help students ask really tough questions in safe spaces," Gordon told leaders of other urban school districts, gathered in Cleveland last week to discuss social-emotional learning strategies.

The district also plans to stagger start and end times at some of its high schools to avoid having large crowds of students gathered in one place when the verdict is announced, and leaders have met with other city agencies to prepare, he said.

Teachable Moments

Cleveland is one of a group of large school districts that have partnered with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, to launch programs designed to teach students about concepts related to healthy relationships, self awareness, and responsible decision making. Those efforts, which include regular classroom discussions about emotions and out-of-classroom events, provide a good foundation for the district's response to events in the greater community, such as the Brelo verdict, leaders said.

Leaders of other districts involved in the CASEL collaborative agreed with Gordon that schools should play an active role in helping students understand and respond to distressing events in their cities and in places like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore.

Oakland Superintendent Antwan Wilson told other district leaders that he wrote a letter to students about how he felt after events in Baltimore.

"I think it's important for students to know that leaders, teachers, and parents are struggling with some of these same issues," he said.

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