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In Ferguson, Students And Teachers Face Tough Questions At School


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. It was back to school in Ferguson, Missouri yesterday, more than a week after the scheduled start. The school's opening was delayed because of the unrest following the shooting death of Michael Brown. Before the doors opened, teachers had training sessions to prepare them for anything from protests in school to individual students who might need counseling. But as teacher Tom Lawson told me during a break from class today, in the end, they really didn't need that. Lawson chairs the social studies department at McCleur High School. It's part of the Ferguson-Florrisant school district.

TOM LAWSON: There were a few students that had buttons on them. They had pictures of Michael Brown. There was a few students that had shirts that said rest in peace, in memorial of Michael Brown. But it was all very supportive. It was all very sincere and genuine in their feelings about what was going on.

BLOCK: You chair the social studies department, and I wonder if you see this as, you know, the cliche would be, a teachable moment - that there's something to be learned from this experience and particularly about participation, social engagement, relations between community and law enforcement - all those things that have come up.

LAWSON: Most definitely. Students are going to have questions. We need to answer those questions. We need to talk about things that are happening in our community. And the relevance - for example in my class, we started talking about the Bill of Rights today. I'm teaching government. And in every aspect that we go through the Bill of Rights, there was a moment in which, you know, everything touched upon our current events - what was happening in our communities. And the students were engaged in talking about what was going on, and we were relating the topic and the content to what we were experiencing in the last couple weeks.

BLOCK: So you were drawing specific links to the Michael Brown shooting and what happened in Ferguson.

LAWSON: Absolutely. When we started off, we were talking about the First Amendment. And the students were like, well if you're talking about the First Amendment, you're talking about the right to peacefully assemble, and that's what was transpiring in Ferguson with the peaceful protests. And there was certainly the talk about free speech, the talk about freedom of the press, and we talked about how the press came in and were covering the story and how some of the storylines might have been exaggerated compared to what they've experienced in their own community. So and then we moved into the other amendments. And as we moved along we just kept seeing how, through different events - that it was related to what we were talking about. And even something back in the 1780s was relevant for us today in the 2000s.

BLOCK: It sounds, Mr. Lawson, like you're describing a very calm, normal back to school there in Ferguson. Do you think the hype around the protests and everything that's gone on over the last couple of weeks has led us to expect something much more dramatic than has actually come to pass?

LAWSON: I think the media and, with some of the key players from outside of Ferguson and outside of our communities have come in, who've kind of incite or inspired the drama that has taken place in some aspects. And I think there was a lot more hype about wanting drama to occur than actually what the students and the community wanted. Our first day of school has been very positive. It's been very quiet. It's been, you know, something that really shows the civic responsibilities of our students and our community and what we need to do. And I don't think that makes much of a story for the press, but it means a lot for us here at our schools.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Lawson, thanks so much for talking with us today.

LAWSON: Well, thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Tom Lawson. He chairs the social studies department at McCleur High School in the Ferguson-Florrisant Missouri school district. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.