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After Violence, We Can Help Students Cope - And Create Change

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By Dr. Meria Carstarphen

Like many educators across the country, I've been moved by the peaceful protests organized by students to bring attention to the need for safer schools. I am inspired by the way students across the nation organized and decided to be active participants in a much-needed conversation instead of remaining idly on the sidelines. And I've been reflecting on the different ways we could do more to equip our students with the tools needed to understand and manage emotions, achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

As Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS)--an urban school district located in the deep south that stands as the birthplace of the early civil rights movement--and as a native of Selma, Alabama, where I have seen firsthand the impact civil engagement has on social change, it was important for me to support many of our APS students who chose to engage in the national walkout in March.

Carsterphen 5.15 - walkout.jpgI joined the students at one of our middle schools for their peaceful demonstration, and watched them form a human chain around the campus to demonstrate unity. I was humbled to see our students at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School march silently in the hallways, carrying messages of love and peace on posters. I was also encouraged after watching the students at Booker T. Washington High School, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr., take a knee and bow their heads in silence out of respect and solidarity for the 17 lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

During the demonstrations, many of our students showed that the social and emotional lessons they are learning have taken root. Lessons in such things as having empathy for others, using their voice to advocate change, displaying self-confidence and self-efficacy, and demonstrating a sense of ethical responsibility to rally behind social justice are competencies we want for all students.

Carsterphen 5.15 - kneel.pngWhile I am inspired by what I witnessed, I recognize that something is still missing from the national narrative: the grim reality of generational poverty, violence, and trauma that our students, many of color, often experience daily. We must broaden the narrative to include solutions for students caught in a maze of unforeseen circumstances. Our urban students experience gun violence in all too frequent incidents of drive-by shootings, car-jackings, and in-home violence. These students, like the ones who have experienced horrific mass school shootings, live in a state of frustration, fear, and anger that more isn't being done to address their experiences. They are crying for help and are asking for change.

Our national conversation must be broad enough to acknowledge the breadth of traumatic events children encounter and the impact those events have on all our students' social and emotional health. In the meantime, it is incumbent on us to continue to focus our resources on the whole child, bringing to bear all aspects of social, emotional, and academic learning so our children--our most precious resource--are ready to thrive. 

The tragedy that occurred in Parkland reminds us that we can no longer ignore that our young people often face issues that they're not equipped to handle. Therefore, as caring adults, it's our collective responsibility to prepare them for the world in which they currently live. Our students need social and emotional support to help them navigate all the challenges life puts in their way--and to hone the skills they will need to raise their voices and make change.

Photos, from top:

Students at Inman Middle School, part of the Atlanta Public Schools system, participate in peaceful advocacy during National Student Walkout Day. (APS)

Booker T. Washington students kneel for 17 minutes, one minute for each life lost in the Parkland shooting. (APS)

Dr. Meria Carstarphen is the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

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