U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spent Tuesday with several dozen middle and high school students in the St. Louis area, listening to their stories of trauma and healing in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.
He visited Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, a predominantly African-American magnet school in St. Louis. And then he visited Riverview Gardens High School in north St. Louis County, which enrolls students who live in Canfield Green apartments, where Brown, a black teenager, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in August.
What Duncan heard left him emotional.
“Our kids are absolutely amazing,” he said, after leaving the library at Riverview Gardens High and heading to the Ferguson Library, where more area students awaited him. “Unbelievably thoughtful and committed to making a difference.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, sat in on the discussions and called the stories both “inspiring” and “heart-wrenching.”
They heard from Jada Goodman, a Riverview Gardens sophomore, who described the intense anxiety she felt after learning Officer Darren Wilson would not face charges for fatally shooting Brown. Wilson says the shooting was self-defense. He has since resigned.
Jada said she feared for the safety of her older brother.
And they heard from Donovan Davis, a junior at the school, who would like to see police and students spend more time getting to know each other to break down misconceptions. He suggested grants be made available to allow officers time to attend more community events, including school activities, to get to know people.
They heard stories of open wounds. Racism. Deep divisions. And solutions.
“This level of wanting to confront racism and bias directly and move forward is the unmistakable lesson and unmistakable message we heard today,” Weingarten said.
The school visits were closed to media to ensure the conversations were fully open and candid, Duncan’s staff said. Brittany Packnett, a member of the Ferguson Commission and the executive director of Teach For America-St. Louis, invited Duncan to visit the St. Louis area and learn from its children.
“We don’t learn by sitting behind a desk in Washington,” Duncan said.
The unrest in Ferguson has had an impact on many students throughout the region. Districts in north St. Louis County in particular have increased the number of counselors in their buildings to help children and staff cope with anxiety and trauma.
Duncan said he’ll return to Washington with a better understanding of the needs in and around Ferguson. He said the Education Department has experience dealing with crises, and made reference to its outreach to areas affected by hurricanes and school shootings. There are short-term grants that can help districts and schools most affected by the unrest here, Duncan said. But, “we’re in this for the long haul.”
After meeting with local superintendents and teachers, Duncan, Weingarten and Clay went to Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, near Dellwood, where they met in the sanctuary with 17 university professors, protesters and college students.
They heard what some of those they met with are doing to address the inequities pervasive in St. Louis-area public schools. They also heard why some have spent the past four months protesting police brutality.
“Kids can’t learn if they can’t live,” said DeRay McKesson, a protester and former teacher who works for the Minneapolis school system.
And for more than an hour, Duncan continued to listen.