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This Is Not A Fire Drill: Derek Francis Shares His Playbook For Supporting Students After George Floyd's Murder

Counselors don't have a playbook for navigating mass protests and civil unrest in the wake of police brutality and racial injustice. Thankfully, Derek Francis is here to help.
Blog post written by
Derek Francis
Manager of Counseling Services

In February, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old unarmed, African American man was shot while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.  The video of this event was released at the end of May.  Soon after, we saw a video of a woman in Central Park attempt to criminalize an African American bird-watcher for asking her to leash her dog.  Two weeks ago, Breonna Taylor was shot by police in her own home.  And this week in my hometown of Minneapolis, we watched the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer in horrific video taken by a bystander.  

These traumatic events have ripped open emotional wounds and our students are hurting, and they need us.  But how do we respond?  This is not a fire drill, there is no one-pager with explicit directions.  There is no flow-chart for processing these traumas.  As our country and our schools try to heal and make changes to a fundamentally flawed system, it is critical we proactively engage students in conversations of race.  Our students are looking for ways to talk and process a wide range of emotions.  School counselors are called to do the social emotional work of fighting racism.  

I have lived in Minnesota my entire life and navigate race issues daily.  Some of you may have heard the saying “Minnesota Nice”, which essentially means that we keep peace by not talking about challenging issues.  This has to change.  I am calling on my fellow-counselors and community members to start and to continue the conversations that will begin the healing and create fundamental change.  Knowing how to support students right now is extremely difficult.  I know this, and I acknowledge the seemingly insurmountable challenges before us, and I challenge you still.  Some of us are worried we’ll say the wrong thing or worried that it’s not our place to take the lead. We have to set those fears aside, and trust that our compassion and our desire to listen and learn will pave the way for fruitful discussions and healing. This is our chance to be proactive as school counselors.  My hope is that we can create space for all students who are hurting and trying to navigate the recent events.  I hope these strategies can help.

1. Speak up and say something.  I know it may be hard and outside of your comfort zone, especially for white counselors.  You have to respond.  Your students need you.  In the past month they have watched and experienced so much trauma, and they continue to stay a man in Georgia on a run get chased down and shot and then they watch a police officer put his knee on someone’s neck for over eight minutes and they died.  Some students have been awake staring at Fox News, CNN, Facebook, TikTok, watching footage of protests, demonstrations, and violence across the country and in their city and they are scared.  It is our duty to create safe space for their developing minds to process what is going on.  Consider and address our bias and privilege in order to facilitate compassionate and authentic conversations around race.  Listen and let your students know that you will do better to work for change and that you want to learn and that you will support them unfailingly.  I encourage you to talk to your own children and family as well as your community about what is going on.  Families of color cannot opt out of these conversations because these conversations keep their children safe; white families need to move through their discomfort in order to address this challenging topic.  We cannot continue to consider this topic off limits because it feels unsettling. Do not wait for your students or staff of color to bring things up.  Be proactive and beat them to it.  

2. Counselors must do the proactive social emotional outreach to students. If your counseling or mental health team has not sent something to the student body and parents, I strongly encourage you to do so.  Sending a message designed to let ALL students know you are aware of the recent events and the challenges that they bring, is important.  This type of messaging is crucial especially while we are working in this virtual learning space.  We miss out on those casual interactions and class conversations that occur naturally while school is taking place in person.  Perhaps the most important action counselors can take right now is to hold virtual space this week for students to connect and have a healthy dialogue about the recent events.  This is how social emotional skills are built.  Students need a comfortable space to engage with peers and hear other perspectives and lived experiences and empathize and provide support on issues of race.  Some students also need a space to find affinity and to hear and to support other students.  Students need these spaces to validate that what they are going through emotionally is not crazy. This is real and it hurts.  There will be students who need a smaller or individual setting, and I encourage counselors to remind students of virtual office hours and they can talk about this topic during that time.  This is an opportunity to show our students equity in motion.

3. Understand that this is a traumatic event.  Our world was already in a state of stress due to the recent pandemic, and the smack of historical racial trauma has shaken us to our core. We must help students open up and process the different triggers that these events are causing for them.  Ask your students or friends of color what it feels like to be pulled over for speeding and fear for your life. This week adds to the already negative view our students of color have of police.  Who do people call when the police are hurting people?  Be mindful and empathize with your students and their experiences.  They may be experiencing racial battle fatigue.  These videos are trauma, and we all need to provide support.  Connect with your colleagues to create space for all students to grieve, process, and express complicated emotions.  To my fellow counselors of color, take care of yourselves and find affinity spaces to connect and heal so you can do this challenging and crucial work.

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