U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spent Tuesday listening to St. Louis area students’ thoughts on race, equity and trust following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
It’s a day Duncan said he’ll never forget.
“The division between young people and the police is huge,” Duncan said. “The division along race in this community is huge. The division along educational opportunity being based on where you live, your zip code, is huge. The inequities are huge.”
Duncan said his visit came at the request of some members of the Ferguson Commission and included stops at the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy High School, a magnet school in St. Louis, and Riverview Gardens High School, which includes areas near the epicenter of protests in Ferguson. He also met with students and teachers at the Ferguson Library and talked with community organizers and activists during a meeting at Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday evening. The meetings were closed to the media.
Duncan praised the students and educators he met with, who he said were committed to making a difference. Some north St. Louis County schools brought in extra mental health professionals and called off school because of unrest in August. Schools were once again closed after a grand jury did not indict Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9.
Even though Duncan said there are several issues surrounding education and racial equality in the St. Louis region, building meaningful relationships between young people and the police is at the top of the list. To that end, Duncan said many students told him that they want more interactions with police, not less, and that schools are the ideal setting for constructive dialog.
“I just can't overstate how large the appetite is among young people to be part of the solution, to build bridges to the police,” Duncan said. “To have the police see them for who they are, and for the police to see them for who they are. And look beyond skin color, look beyond uniforms, look beyond badges, look beyond stereotypes and get to know each other as humans.”
Duncan said it will take time for him to process what he referred to as an emotional day and develop ways his department can help address some of the issues raised by students. He did say that small federal grants for education programs could be made available and that White House officials continue to pay close attention to Ferguson.
“We are not going to solve this from Washington,” Duncan said. “I think we can help be part of the solution if we’re really listening closely to what’s going on here and all of us working together to get to a better place.”
Duncan also spoke with area superintendents, who he said expressed their concern about the uneven educational landscape in the St. Louis region.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joined Duncan during his visit.
“Wanting to confront racism and bias directly and move forward is the unmistakable lesson and the unmistakable message we heard today,” Weingarten said.