A clear sense of openness and intense unity emanated from every student and teacher in the All Division Room an on otherwise normal F Day when they met to discuss the decision that was made regarding the controversial case in Ferguson, Missouri.
For the rest of the day, the over fifty students and teachers involved were inspired and humbled from the outpour of community support and respect in a tumultuous time.
On Thursday, December 4th, as protests and marches were brewing across the country, Rutgers Prep held its own gathering to collectively discuss the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer.
Wilson shot Brown at least six times in reaction to a disputed altercation. Although the shooting occurred on August 9th, a county grand jury contemplated until recently as to whether charges should be brought and what they should be.
Finally, on November 24th, Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who led the grand jury proceedings, publically announced that Darren Wilson had not been indicted.
Minutes after the announcement, the streets and social media exploded with comments from both sides of the issue.
Ferguson itself was immediately engulfed in shouts, riots, and looting. Just an hour later, throngs of people gathered in Boston and New York City, as well as in towns all over America, enraged and disappointed at the justice system.
Brown’s family had issued a statement hours before the decision, calling for 4.5 minutes of silence afterwards, in reference to the hours Michael Brown’s body remained on the street and reminding everyone that, “We are not here to be violent. We lift our voices to ensure black and brown men, women, and children can live in this country without being devalued because of the color of our skin.”
However, protests in Ferguson quickly turned violent, leading to damage to houses and stores in the town.
Regardless of Rutgers Prep’s students’ beliefs about the incident, countless people were eager to discuss and share their points of views in civil conversation. Along with Ms. Corrigan and Dr. Chodl, those interested in bringing this issue to the forefront of our community organized a Community Time devoted to initiating a greater discussion about it.
On Thursday, students split up into random groups of about a dozen, and were paired with a teacher to ensure that discussion and debate remained civil and respectful. Students were free to explore whichever facet of the issue they wished to and to ask questions without the fear of judgment.
Many groups started with a recap of the actual events as they unfolded in Ferguson. Students talked about the conflicting witness testimonies and official reports released by the grand jury.
Students reviewed the difference between an indictment and actual prosecution, clarifying that an indictment is a formal accusation of a felony, or serious crime, and serves as a recommendation to go to trial with enough evidence.
Afterwards, they talked about whether the shooting was simply a result of police brutality, stereotyping, or a combination of both.
Some groups compared this incident with other recent shootings, as well as the Eric Garner chokehold case in New York City.
Students & teachers then broached broader issues of race relations in our national community as well as how this incident is similar to and different from the widespread protests during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The groups operated as safe spaces for questions and different opinions.
Towards the end, all of the respective groups gathered together in the All Division Room to summarize the discussions and review any final thoughts. A recurring theme was the importance of channeling the frustration that many feel into progress to ensure that this type of situation can be avoided in the future.
The White House has already begun to push for police body cameras to strengthen trust between law enforcement and those that they protect.
Ultimately, although the events in Ferguson instigated an uproar of protest and anger, communities like Rutgers Prep are bringing people on either side of the debate together for intelligent, mature, and respectful conversation.
As the Community Time discussion ended, students and teachers alike expressed their optimism for the future with more open conversations like these.