How Professors in St. Louis Are Teaching the Lessons of Ferguson’s Unrest

August 26, 2014

As college students return to classrooms in St. Louis this week, many will find that lesson plans have been hastily revised to include sensitive issues of race and policing that were ignited by the fatal shooting on August 9 of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the suburb of Ferguson, Mo.

On Monday, as thousands of mourners gathered nearby for Michael Brown’s funeral, area college students were engaging in conversations about racial profiling, the use of force, and tensions caused by economic disparities. The links were obvious in fields like criminal justice and sociology, where professors were able to put a familiar face on their case studies. But faculty members in education, English, history, and a wide range of other disciplines also saw teaching opportunities in a tragedy that has gripped the nation and prompted calls for change. The Chronicle talked with local professors about how they planned to tackle such issues in the classroom. Following are four examples of their plans, in their own words.

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Daniel Isom, professor of policing and the community at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and police chief of St. Louis from 2008 to 2012

Courses: "Policing" and "Introduction to Criminology and Criminal Justice"

I’d like to work with the class to build a case study on how you would handle a highly charged police shooting. How would you deal with a protest situation, what are the steps you go through as a law-enforcement agency in terms of managing a crowd and releasing information to the public?

We’ll also be talking about community policing as it relates to Ferguson. This became a buzzword in the 1990s as a way to build better relationships with the community. I want to look at a broader model of community policing that goes beyond neighborhood meetings and foot patrols. We’ll examine cities, like Cincinnati, that have collaborative agreements in which citizens have a voice in the hiring process and in the promotion and selection of the chief. We’ll also consider whether a more-diverse force might have been able to quell some of the unrest in Ferguson or build a better understanding and communication with the community.

We need to have a mix of people in law enforcement, and I hope more students of diverse backgrounds will see this as a career path.

There’s a lot we can learn from this situation about de-escalating tensions and the legal justifications for using force. Would people feel more confident if citizens could review use-of-force cases? When you have problems in the neighborhood, do you go to the community and say, "These are the strategies we have in our toolbox. What do you think we should do?" That way, when an incident happens, the response is something the community has agreed is appropriate.

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Clarissa Rile Hayward, associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis

Courses: "Power, Justice, and the City" and "History of Political Thought II: Legitimacy, Equality, and the Social Contract"

In the first course, we look at theories of power and justice through the lens of the contemporary metropolis, with sections that examine power and racial injustice, resistance to power in urban America, and power and justice in American suburbs. In every case, Ferguson will be very relevant. A local alderman, Antonio French, published a series of vines (short videos) in which he captured much of the police violence on film. We’ll use that to talk about the role of new media, including Twitter, in political communication and mobilization.

One of the key concepts in my history-of-thought class is legitimacy. On our first day, we will think about this concept using the Ferguson case. We’ll ask what it is about governance and the exercise of power in Ferguson that seems illegitimate. Two-thirds of the population is African-American, but the mayor, the entire school board, and all but one member of the City Council are white. It raises the question: Does this body of elected officials share the perspectives of their constituency? How are local elections structured, and how might that contribute to the imbalance?

In my class on the history of political thought, we study social-contract theory. We read Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and focus on the idea of government legitimacy being founded on consent, on the will of the people. I want students to think about why these political theories are relevant today. What’s happening in Ferguson grounds these issues in something concrete and urgent.

I’m so far behind where I usually am at this point, but I’m also feeling energized. I often feel like scholarship and teaching are done in the quiet of the office and involve mostly reflection. I hope that continuing the conversations about racial injustice that we’re having around campus in the classroom will highlight the relevance of political theory to political life.

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Norman A. White, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice in the School of Social Work at Saint Louis University

Courses: "Externship in Criminology" and "Criminology and Professional Practice"

Three years ago, we decided we needed to change the way we looked at offenders and the justice system, and we coined a phrase, human justice, to emphasize the goal of providing dignity to everyone. We’ve been finding ways to get students into the community more to interact with people they might not otherwise meet, to see that they’re just like them. You can’t be an effective criminal-justice professional without understanding the lives of the people you may come in contact with.

We’re looking at how issues like poverty, unemployment, and single-parent households increase the possibility of young people engaging in problem behavior. What’s happening in Ferguson is putting this work more front and center, and it’s opened the door to conversations about economic inequality and the constitution of the police force that needed to happen.

We’ve been creating relationships with middle-school kids through tutoring and other activities in a place called the Sanctuary, which is located in a St. Louis neighborhood with historically high crime rates.

Given what’s been happening lately, I sent my students a letter with a series of questions, mainly about how they felt about my asking them to go out and do this work. Some of my students are younger, and I also wanted to reassure their parents that they wouldn’t be in danger. Because we’re a Jesuit institution, we have students who want to serve the community, and they’re eager for these opportunities. Sometimes my colleagues talk about these neighborhoods as laboratories, but I think about them as places where people live.

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Cindy Epperson, professor of sociology at St. Louis Community College at Meramec

Courses: "Introduction to Sociology" and "Crime and Society"

I’m working on diagrams to show how all of this started with the shooting and killing of an 18-year-old man just two weeks ago and how that led to all of a sudden having National Guard troops stationed in our streets and people rioting.

One diagram will show Michael Brown and the groups that surround him—the grieving family and the grieving community—and how his death connected him to a community of strangers. We’ll talk about how the life and death of this young man will lead to social change.

We’ll also talk about debunking stereotypes and myths. Most of the looters shown in the media were black, so people who believe this is what black people do are going to say, "See, I told you so." But what we do in sociology is look at how many people were there and how many were not looting. How many were opportunists whose actions had nothing to do with the death of Michael Brown?

My colleagues and I have spent time with the protesters in Ferguson, trying to get our heads around what’s happening. We want students to start thinking critically about how the events relate to each other and about possible solutions. Why are there only three African-American officers out of 53 when 63 percent of Ferguson is African-American? What kinds of attitudes might be preventing people from becoming police officers, and how can the college be part of the solution?

Katherine Mangan is a national reporter for The Chronicle who covers community colleges, college-completion efforts, and work-force issues. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan.