Laguna Beach teachers talk with students about racism amid nationwide civil unrest

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A peaceful Black Lives Matter protest was held June 2 at Main Beach. Photo by Steve Zepezauer

Like thousands of educators across the country, Laguna Beach High School teachers find themselves trying to help their students process the killing of George Floyd and the following civil unrest.

Social studies teachers Kristin Cowles and Mark Alvarez admit their jobs are complicated by the fact students are still distance learning from home because of the coronavirus and set to start summer break on June 11.

As Laguna Beach High’s facilitator for No Place For Hate, a national campaign by the Anti-Defamation League to eradicate racial bias and bullying from schools, Cowles says its critically important for teachers to talk with students about the history of racism in the United States.

“Because of the limited time left in the school, there may not be many structured discussions that can take place in classes,” Cowles wrote in an email. “I am devastated by that personally because I find solace in talking with and listening to our young people at times like these.”

Laguna Beach has seen a series of small peaceful protests at Main Beach since Saturday. So far, Laguna Beach residents have not experienced curfew like those ordered earlier this week in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach.

Cowles had already scheduled a deep dive on the civil rights movement with her AP U.S. History class before the recent protests and looting. Last week, they discussed Jim Crow segregation and Plessy v. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation of public facilities. In this week’s Zoom session, they discussed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The timing of this topic gives the students and me an opportunity to place the murder of Mr. George Floyd and the uprisings in a historical context,” Cowles said.

On Sunday night, Cowles sent out information to her colleagues about personal action and how to talk about racism with their students. Because many of Laguna Beach High teachers are also parents of young children, she also included resources for talking to young children. 

In a voluntary Zoom meeting with students on Tuesday night, Cowles asked students to share their thoughts on the past week’s events.

“I felt that students needed and wanted a safe place to discuss, question, and mourn,” she said.

Alvarez said he held virtual office hours for his Economics and AP Government & Politics classes on Tuesday and the protests briefly came up in conversation.

“What’s happening around the country makes for a teachable moment,” Alvarez wrote in an email. “This is my last week with the seniors and there will be so much left unsaid.”

Carolen Sadler’s World History classes are ending the school year by focusing on human rights around the world. Students are creating a superhero comic strip that spotlights unjust abuses in various regions around the world, including the U.S.

“Many students have chosen to address the recent racist incidents here, including attacks against Jews,” Sadler wrote in an email. “Not only are their superheroes addressing short term remedies, but exploring long term changes that need to be made socially, politically, etc.”

In her U.S. course this week, Sadler has dedicated more time to the Post-Civil War Reconstruction era as a precursor to the country’s current state of race relations. ”Undoubtedly, next year holds more opportunity to address this issue and I hope to take full advantage of it,” Sadler said.

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