Talking Back to Silence: My Pledge to Speak on Community Violence

June 24, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Jennifer Dines, NBCT, is the Special Education and Student Services Coordinator at the Gardner Pilot Academy K-8 School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. The views expressed in this blog are her own.  

I live in Roslindale – a sleepy residential neighborhood in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. There are three public elementary schools within half a mile of my home, as well as a handful of parks and playgrounds, a small grocery store, and a branch of the Boston Public Library.

Recently, Roslindale made the national news. Roslindale is where Usaama Rahim, a 26-year-old man under investigation by an anti-terrorism task force, wielded an 8-inch knife to police and was subsequently shot – and later pronounced dead at a Boston hospital.

This happened within blocks of my home – in the parking lot of my local CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts. In fact, I drove by the crime scene on my way to work, 20 minutes after the shooting had occurred. The shopping center was cordoned off with yellow tape reading “Boston Police – Do Not Cross.” The parking lot was a jumble of police cars, ambulances, unmarked sedans, and uniformed officials.

I continued to school, and I completed the day’s duties; I had already forgotten the morning’s events until I checked the news after school and saw an article about the shooting. My palms sweated and the phone slipped out of my hand as I took a few deep breaths, turned on the car, and put the air conditioner on full blast.

I focused on my breathing throughout the drive home, as questions raced through my head: What was that man doing with an 8-inch knife so early in the morning? Will something else go down? Are my children safe in our neighborhood?

The questions ran through my mind as I tucked my daughters into bed, as I ate dinner, as I graded assignments – all with the unfamiliar sound of helicopters roaming over my normally quiet home.

The next day, there was no mention of the incident at school – via e-mail or face-to-face. But I thought about it all day, and I felt guilty because there were other things I needed to focus on: IEP meetings, field trip permission slips, returning phone calls.

I have worked in the Boston Public Schools since 2005, and each time a crisis has occurred involving our neighbors, our schools have remained virtually silent. Those events I keep in my memory include the shooting of a 7-year-old boy shot in Dorchester while riding his bike,  the attempted murder of a 17-year-old boy in Roxbury by a dean at the English High School, the accidental shooting of a 9-year-old Mattapan boy by his 14-year-old brother,  the death of 13-year-old Steven Odom by a stray bullet in Dorchester.

Even following the Boston Marathon bombing, teachers were not offered support on how to broach this events with students. My ESL class and I completed a small writing project, but the moment was important enough to discuss and reflect upon as a community – and that opportunity was missed.

Vague instructions may be worse than none at all. A colleague shared with me the fractured reactions of teachers at a nearby school who were given a directive to unpack a recent episode of violence against a student.  Teachers were told to talk to the students for one period and to provide snacks for them. As a result, a few teachers were able to enlist the help of school-based mental health supports, others expressed their guilt at not following the directive because they didn’t know how to approach the event, and a few teachers even took time off to process the crisis personally.

Schools play a unique role in connecting the children and families in the community, and our schools should be a place where we come together in a time of crisis. We must take the time to provide support to our children who are sensitive to violence, engage our school communities in thoughtful reflection, and look together for solutions to community issues.

I am making a promise to myself – the next time there is a crisis, I will speak up at school. I will immediately enlist colleagues in collaboratively planning and implementing means to address community issues as they occur. I do not want students to view schooling as artificial and disconnected; I want them to have the chance to ask their questions about what’s going on around them and to ensure them that the adults are there to support them.

Most importantly, I do not want anyone to feel as alone in their thoughts as I did.

Jennifer Dines, NBCT

Jennifer Dines is the Director of English Language Learners at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. Jennifer is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of English as a New Language. She is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lesley University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. In addition to blogging for The Standard, Jennifer currently maintains her personal blog as well as a newer collaborative blog focused on writing across the curriculum: Follow her on twitter @literacychange.