Dialogue Surrounding the VanDyke Trial at Latin

Bea Parr and Olivia Katz On October 20th, 2014, police officer Jason Van Dyke shot seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times, leaving him dead. Officer Van Dyke was not charged until his dashcam video was released in 2015, and the trial did not begin until September of this year. Finally, on Friday, October 5th, the long-awaited verdict of the trial was released. In the end, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Van Dyke will return to court later this month to be sentenced. On October 5th, one could feel the stress and tension throughout the school. The verdict was long awaited for many students and teachers, and many had strong opinions on how they wanted it to play out. Therefore, when teachers discovered that the verdict would be released during school hours, they had an important yet difficult decision to make. Was discussing the trial worth scrapping lesson plans? Was the subject too uncomfortable to discuss in class? Or did the issue demand to be discussed? Is having informed students important above all else? Some teachers decided that such a historical event demanded to be addressed. Ms. Barker discussed the trial in both her Black Voices in America and her MESA Lit classes. In the case of Black Voices in America, the trial is directly related to the subject matter of the class, and the class watched the verdict on Friday and discussed it on Monday. Ms. Barker noted that, “Monday’s discussion was very much in light of our course,” as “we had been studying the week before how police brutality plays into that [institutionalized racism]” and her class “had been listening to the podcast ‘Sixteen Shots’ for homework and their summer reading was the Hate U Give so much of our first quarter was on elements of police brutality.” Ms. Barker recognized that it was easier to discuss in Black Voices in America because the trial was so directly related to the course, and expressed that discussing the trial “would be more difficult in a class where it didn’t so directly connect, but I would still find it important to do that in other classes too.” Ms. Hennessy agreed that it is important to discuss current events. “I think it’s important to allow students to ask questions about an important current event like this in any part of the school setting.” However, she felt that discussing the trial was not necessary in all classrooms, “I think it’s appropriate to set aside class time to discuss something like the Van Dyke trial in classes where it makes sense with the course content.” The uncertainty of the verdict made October 5th an emotional day for many students, so teachers who chose to address it had to take that into account. To make students as comfortable as possible, Ms. Barker told them, “Please email me and tell me what you will need after the verdict, regardless of what it is, and how you want to approach this as a class.” Ms. Barker recognized that everyone processes differently, and stressed the importance of “getting a feel for the room and how many people were interested in speaking in a group or who needed personal space to process it at an individual level.” To ease tension between students, teachers kept discussions based on facts rather than individual opinions. Ms. Hennessy gave students the information they needed to form their own opinions, “I mostly addressed student questions and provided them with background on the case.” Ms. Hennessy stressed the importance of understanding both sides of the story, “We spent one class period walking through who might support a guilty verdict v. an acquittal with the goal of understanding both the defense and the prosecution.” Similarly, Ms. Barker’s discussion was, “very much grounded in the content of the course,” rather than student opinions. While many teachers stressed the importance of discussing the final verdict in class, there were some who did not bring up the trial at all. Sophomore Maeve Healy reflected on her experience at school on October 5th, and explained that “we did discuss the hearing in some of my classes, but our teachers didn’t want us distracted so we weren’t really able to discuss it which upset me a lot.” Students like Maeve were frustrated about not being able to watch the final verdict in class and argued that everyone should have been given the opportunity to watch the trial. On top of not watching it, Meave noted that not being given the time to reflect on the verdict upset her. “I feel like so much went on that day, and for a lot of people, it might have been a lot to handle. I think teachers should make it known that it’s okay to be angry.” While many students followed the trial and had strong opinions about its outcome, other students were not even informed of the issue. When asked about whether the school should have done more to inform students, junior Shaya Puri pointed out that “It wouldn’t have made much of a difference for me as I followed the trial, but I think it might be important for students who don’t keep up with the news.” Maeve agreed, explaining that she “was extremely grateful for [being well informed on the issue from conversations at home] because the school didn’t really talk much about it.” It seems clear that students’ responses to how Latin’s handling of October 5th have been off of their personal experiences. Students in classes that watched the verdict were either glad they got to address the event head on or were upset that they weren’t given an option to abstain from the potentially personal and/or sensitive content; students in classes that didn’t watch the verdict felt they were asked to ignore an elephant in the room or were appreciative of the ability to do so.]]>