In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, educators have used the trial as an opportunity to help their students examine the complex issues of race, policing and the criminal justice system.
While the murder trial of Mr. Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, might not appear to be age-appropriate instruction for 9-year-old students, Ms. Walton said she felt compelled to use the event as a teachable moment. All of her students had seen their city consumed by protests in the months that followed Mr. Floyd’s fatal arrest, and some had seen the widely circulated video, filmed by a teenager, that captured his violent, slow-motion death.
“No little kid should watch that,” Ms. Walton said. “But when it’s plastered all over the news, they have questions.”
In Minneapolis, educators have grappled over the last few weeks with how to address the trial with their students, with some using jury selection or witness testimony as an opportunity to explore the complex issues of race, policing and the criminal justice system. Teachers have cautiously given students the chance to ask questions and share their opinions during class. And school administrators and counselors have scheduled talking circles, where children can open up about how the trial has rekindled feelings of racial trauma and fears of potential unrest.
When Ms. Walton, who teaches at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, where most of the students are Black, asked her class what it knew about the trial, the children effortlessly explained who Mr. Chauvin was and his role in Mr. Floyd’s death. They knew that the person who runs the courtroom is called a judge, and their voices rang out in unison when asked to describe the 12 people who would render judgment: “the jury.”
After Ms. Walton asked which students thought Mr. Chauvin was guilty, plenty of small hands shot up. Asked why, a girl named Keyly laid out a devastating assessment of the defendant’s actions at the heart of the trial.
“He put his knee on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “And George Floyd said he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe several times, and the police officer didn’t listen to him at all.”
The adult nature of the televised murder trial, marked by graphic videos and emotional eyewitness accounts, poses a challenge for educators. In Texas, a teacher at a majority-Black high school last week showed freshmen a livestream of the trial in class, including footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, and required them to act as mock jurors, prompting complaints from parents who said the project was assigned without their consent.
Ms. Walton said she received approval from the school administration to show brief parts of the court proceedings in class, but because of the trial’s traumatic elements, she was careful to not let her students see and hear anything too graphic or disturbing.
Across Minneapolis, where nearly seventy percent of public school students are nonwhite, discussions about the trial have occurred in school classrooms and online learning. Kristi Ward, the principal for third through eighth graders at Lake Nokomis Community School, said months of conversations about racial justice, along with the city’s more recent efforts to fortify the courthouse, made it impossible to ignore. And so she has worked with her staff on developing ways to prompt meaningful discussions with their students, who are 60 percent white, even if difficult questions are raised.
“We have to engage even if we’re uncomfortable and we don’t have the answers,” she said. “I’m telling them to stay on top of the trial to make sure they’re understanding the facts, and then just leaning into the conversation rather than pulling away.”