’11-year-olds are aware…and they’re fed up’: Teachers, parents tackle difficult conversations after George Floyd’s death

A sit-in at the Capitol on June 2, 2020 was organized by a group of Minneapolis high school students to protest George Floyd's killing, police brutality and systemic racism. Photo by Calvin Mattson

Triasia Givens first had the talk with her son when he was 3.

She didn’t want him to be shocked by racism, so she explained that people might treat him differently. Now 9, he’s used to following rules like no wearing hoods outside and no playing in the front yard.

Last week Givens explained to her son, who has autism, why she made those rules: in hopes of keeping him safe from the violence George Floyd and countless other Black men have suffered at the hands of police.

The conversation was difficult but not new.

“This is exactly how we feel every day,” Givens said. “When you have a Black child or a Black son, that’s what you’re afraid of. You’re afraid to put him on the bus when he goes to school because you don’t know if he acts out and a cop gets called, something might happen.”

Like Givens, families across the metro are having tough discussions in the wake of Floyd’s death in police custody, which unleashed fury in the Twin Cities and spurred protests across the world. 

These conversations are important even with young children, experts say. Between the pandemic and the widely circulated video of former officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, the subsequent unrest and damage to neighborhoods, children could be experiencing compounding layers of distress — all the more acute for Black children and children of color.

Classrooms could be effective places for children to process the turmoil, researchers say. But with schools closed for months due to COVID-19 and summer break starting, teachers have to support students by phone and computer.

And by some accounts, it’s not happening much, if at all. Some students say their teachers didn’t address Floyd’s death or the unrest. Students found other ways to cope — some by attending demonstrations or even organizing their own.

In normal circumstances, schools would be a natural place for children to learn about what’s happening and share their thoughts, but distance learning and the end of the school year have made that difficult for some, said Annie Mason, program director of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota.

Teachers’ first priority should be meeting students’ basic needs, and their work gathering and distributing supplies must continue through summer break, Mason said. Many families were already experiencing financial hardship because of the pandemic, and families in south Minneapolis are now living with limited grocery options after Target and Aldi were looted and damaged.

Educators should also give students opportunities to talk openly, Mason said. If teachers don’t acknowledge Floyd’s death and systemic racism, then they may be signaling that it’s inappropriate to discuss these important issues, contributing to a “culture of silence,” Mason said. 

Jeffrey Garcia, a middle school special education teacher in St. Paul, said his students were eager to discuss Floyd’s death when he and his colleagues gave them the chance. Students were upset about the injustice and shaken after watching the video of Floyd’s killing, he said.

Garcia, who identifies as Afro-Latino, was coping with his own distress after the tragedy and helping with community patrol and cleanup in his south Minneapolis neighborhood while teaching. His white colleagues took the lead on student discussions so Garcia wasn’t tasked with that work alone, he said.

Qorsho Hassan, a fifth grade teacher at Burnsville’s Gideon Pond Elementary, said Floyd’s death was traumatic for her and many of her Black students. She wished she could check in with them in person after months of distance learning.

Their conversations after Floyd’s death were tough, even though they regularly discuss racism together, she said. One student who researched police brutality for a project commented that both Floyd and Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe” before they died.

“There was this long pause because that was heavy,” Hassan said. “Ten, 11-year-olds are aware of the parallels happening between police brutality cases, and they’re fed up.”

Thousands gathered outside the Capitol for a sit-in June 2, 2020 organized by students in response to George Floyd’s death. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., hosted a virtual town hall with Hassan’s class last week, in which students could ask questions about anything. Hassan said students were curious about Craig’s favorite book and why three officers involved in Floyd’s death hadn’t been charged.

“It meant a lot for my students to be seen as constituents,” Hassan said. “They have a voice, they have thoughts and opinions, and they want to see change.”

But not all teachers broached the subject. Shakopee High School graduating seniors Yusuf Mohamud and Tim Evans said their school sent out an email, but none of their teachers addressed Floyd’s killing or the protests.

At a sit-in at the Capitol last week, Mohamud and Evans said they were disappointed they couldn’t talk about Floyd and the uprising at school. Many of their peers are passionate activists, Mohamud said.

“Our student body is very fierce,” Mohamud said. “When we want change, we get it.”

The sit-in was organized and led by students, including DeLaSalle High graduating senior Kennedi Roberts. Thousands attended the peaceful sit-in to protest Floyd’s death and police brutality.

Community members and policymakers should respect young people’s ideas and recognize that they won’t quiet down anytime soon, she said.

“Trayvon Martin (was shot) eight years ago now — I was 10. I’m 18 now, and ever since then it’s just gotten worse,” Roberts said. “We’re sick and tired of this treatment, and you can imagine if we’re sick and tired and we’re 18, 19, how tired are my grandparents? How tired are my parents?”

With younger children, parents have to balance informing them about what’s happening in the Twin Cities with limiting exposure to news they aren’t developmentally equipped to understand, said BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, a Minnesota-based psychologist who specializes in working with Black families.

For Minneapolis parent Givens, this means shielding her son from frightening information. She told him about Floyd’s death, but they don’t watch TV news. And she told him he stayed with his grandparents for six days after Floyd’s death so they could spend time together, not because their Minneapolis neighborhood received racist, violent threats.

During these discussions, parents need to reassure kids that they will keep them safe, Garrett-Akinsanya said. For traumatized children, this might require finding new ways to give them a sense of personal and community safety.

The community organizing in the Twin Cities could be beneficial for children’s mental health by showing that others are looking out for them, too, she said. It also gives parents opportunities to talk about racism and injustice in age-appropriate ways and to show positive behaviors like helping neighbors and standing up for others, she said.

“Parents have a role in helping children have a sense of autonomy and a sense that they can do something,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “During this time, we want to make sure we’re teaching children they’re not better than others, and others aren’t better than them. We want to teach them about equity and equality.”