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Ed Hightower

Ed Hightower, Edwardsville school superintendent.

EDWARDSVILLE • In many ways, the recent chaos in Ferguson is perfect fodder for high school discussions about the judicial system, civil disobedience, racial divides and the role of media.

But in the Edwardsville School District, teachers in the middle and high schools have been told by principals to “change the subject and refocus the students” whenever Ferguson comes up.

The directives have upset some parents who say the events following the police officer shooting of Michael Brown present a wealth of teaching opportunities for their children, many of whom have been watching the situation unfold on television. But school administrators say teachers have been inserting their opinions into the discussions, which is why they’re shutting them down altogether.

“Such comments have caused students and parents to lash out which is not healthy in the District 7 community,” says a memo to staff on Tuesday from Dennis Cramsey, principal at Edwardsville High School.

Across the region, educators are trying to figure out how to best engage students in conversations about Ferguson. The death of Brown, 18, has brought international attention to the region’s racial wounds. The protests — both peaceful and violent — have raised awareness of the lack of diversity in many area police departments, and the disenfranchisement of many area African-Americans.

Several superintendents met Wednesday at EducationPlus, an organization in Creve Coeur representing dozens of area school districts. They discussed trauma counseling and how to address the stress students might bring to class after watching the nighttime clashes on television or witnessing it first hand. For a couple of minutes, they talked about the kinds of discussions that might play out in classrooms.

“Nobody said the staff should be silent,” said Don Senti, executive director of the organization. Edwardsville may be the only school district in the region that’s done this, he said.

Superintendent Ed Hightower said the situation playing out 25 miles away in Ferguson was a worthwhile topic of discussion — but not if teachers don’t explore it in an objective way. In his 19 years leading the district, never has there been a more divisive issue than Brown’s shooting or the unrest in Ferguson, he said.

“We all have personal opinions about what has gone wrong, what has gone right. And we all have opinions on what should be done,” Hightower said. “We don’t need to voice those opinions or engage those opinions in the classrooms.”

But Abigail Wilson, an Edwardsville senior, said she’d like to talk about Ferguson and its many facets. She talks about it with friends. She’d like to discuss it in sociology.

“It’s modern history,” she said. “It’s huge. It’s so much more interesting than things that happened 200 years ago.”

On Tuesday, there was a discussion about Ferguson in Nate Hunsell’s health class. The teacher led the class in considering two perspectives — that of the residents and that of the police.

“It wasn’t heated,” Nate, a senior, said. “No one got upset about anything that was said.”

Then he learned from teachers Wednesday that Ferguson was now off limits.

“I thought it was kind of dumb,” Nate said. “It’s something that’s going on. It’s kind of a big deal.”

The district’s directive has generated a flurry of responses from parents on the Edwardsville parents’ Facebook page — many of whom said teachers should try to keep their opinions out of discussions, but not have to quash them altogether.

“An event of this magnitude shouldn’t be swept under the rug,” one of those parents, Glenn Beckmann, said in an interview. “I agree with everything in that letter except for the provision forbidding them from talking about it. We have hundreds of teachers in the school district and I would bet 98 percent would discuss this with students objectively.”

Hightower said avoiding the topic shouldn’t be misinterpreted as the district’s trying to ignore current events in its middle and high schools. The actions to stop conversation have more to do with preventing teachers from focusing too heavily on one side of the story.

“We engage,” he said. “We encourage discussion of current events. But you have to be careful injecting personal opinion when you don’t have the facts.”