The Charlottesville High School B Commons recently was decorated with portraits that showcase the diversity of the school’s students and faculty. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Since a white nationalist rally brought hateful speech, violence and death to the Charlottesville community on Aug. 12, local educators have been preparing to support students and teach them about what took place.

The superintendents and school board chairs for the Albemarle County and Charlottesville school divisions issued a joint statement Aug. 14 in response to the Unite the Right rally and the violence that surrounded it.

“We are a community that values the safety of every person, the dignity of every resident, the respect of every background, the equality of every opportunity and the strength of every collaboration that promotes the common good,” the statement read. “… We will be known as the community that rededicated itself to the promise of America and to those ideals that define our nation’s highest calling.”

Charlottesville Superintendent Rosa Atkins said last week that the city school division was attending to the needs of school leaders and teachers, so that they in turn could attend to the needs of students.

“If we miss these steps, we will miss an opportunity for healing and growth,” Atkins said.

At a division-wide convocation on Aug. 14, Charlottesville teachers and staff sang along to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” waving green glow sticks in time with the music.

“Music is healing on any level that you engage with it,” said Will Cooke, a choral instructor at Charlottesville High School. “Some people were silent, some sang along, some danced together in the aisles. There really was the most positive feeling.”

Cooke said CHS’ principal, Eric Irizarry, told teachers to prioritize self-care last week, “… because when the students come in [on Wednesday], you have to be ready to make them your No. 1 priority.”

Bernard Hairston, executive director of community engagement for the county schools, said the division’s principals, teachers, counselors and psychologists already have been trained to help their schools respond to traumatic events.

“We feel like, as a school division, we are already prepared to handle a multitude of situations,” Hairston said. “We wanted to remind our school leaders to look at the tools that are already in place.”

Hairston said he has told teachers to keep in mind that their students’ levels of exposure to the events of the Aug. 12 weekend will be greatly varied.

“While some students have had conversations with their parents, some students’ contact with the events may have been very limited by their parents,” Hairston said.

Stephanie Passman, a technology integration specialist at several county schools, said there was consensus among teachers that their first step will be to make sure students feel safe in their community.

“This was a very scary thing for all of us, and it happened in a place where we are often accustomed to feeling very safe,” Passman said.

The rally in Charlottesville has sparked a national discussion among educators about how to teach students about racism and white supremacy. Some local teachers have joined the conversation on social media, or shared their ideas with news outlets.

Melinda D. Anderson, an education writer and contributor to The Atlantic, created the viral hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Aug. 12 to crowdsource resources for teaching about what occurred that weekend, and the historical underpinnings of white supremacy in America.
“Charlottesville was a flashpoint — an event that horrifies and disturbs our conscience,” Anderson said in an email. “But the shocking display of white supremacy in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 is the ideological foundation on which America’s institutions and laws and policies are built,” she said.
“… Charlottesville is a forceful reminder that we have to address these issues in the classroom,” Anderson said. “That’s how we empower students to be agents for social change and racial justice — and empower them to create an America that’s more equitable and just.”
Scovie Martin, who teaches U.S. history at Western Albemarle High School, said his students will discuss whether the legal invention of “whiteness” and “blackness” in 17th- and 18th-century Virginia continues to influence the groups that convened in Charlottesville.
“When one looks at the court decisions and progressions of laws leading up to Virginia’s first comprehensive slave code in 1705, you can see that race was an intentional invention, not based on prejudices that evolved over time; its creation was all about power,” Martin said in an email. “I’ll ask [students] to consider whether that analysis applies to the Charlottesville white nationalist protestors.”
Hairston said it was important for teachers to not be judgmental of students when discussing the rally and the sensitive topics surrounding it.
“Whether they are working with individuals or groups of students, it is the responsibility of teachers to respond with measured support,” Hairston said. “Their comments must not promote any personal or political agenda.”
Outside of the schools, many local nonprofits also are working to support youth in the aftermath of the rally.
A group of youth-serving organizations in Charlottesville recently launched #DearYoungPerson, a postcard campaign requesting messages of encouragement for children.
ReadyKids distributed a list of tips and resources for parents before the rally took place. Charlottesville City Schools posted the document on its website last week.
“Based on what happened at the [Klu Klux Klan] rally in July, we knew there were going to be strong feelings around this one,” said ReadyKids communications officer Kristin Sancken. “We didn’t know how strong they were going to be.”
“We shared these resources to help people prepare to talk with their kids about bias, injustice and intolerance,” Sancken said.
“Parents are a child’s first teacher. They are a child’s first counselor. They are the ones that children will be coming to with questions.”
ReadyKids operates a 24-hour Teen Crisis Hotline and offers free counseling services for teens.
“We at ReadyKids are really heartbroken to see the trauma that has affected our entire city,” Sancken said. “We are hoping to build up a new generation that can make us stronger and better, and give us a brighter future.”

Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.