For school community at KIPP Tulsa College Prep, death of Terence Crutcher is personal

ByAndrea Eger

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Education is a serious business at KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory, but business as usual became impossible in an instant Monday afternoon.

That’s when police released videos showing an officer fatally shoot an unarmed Terence Crutcher — father of a KIPP Tulsa student and relative of nearly 10 other students and employees in this small middle school of only 300 students.

“We are trying to educate an entire school community about something that is really traumatic and personal to a member of our school community, while simultaneously creating a safe space for our kids to grieve and talk about something that affects us as KIPPsters but also as a community of people of color,” said Principal Andrew McRae.

“We decided as a faculty we weren’t just going to ignore this. We wanted to help our students process this.”

McRae immediately turned to Rebecca Lee because of the special relationships she has developed with students throughout the school in her three years as a literacy coach and writing teacher. After checking in with Cructher’s family members who were present Tuesday, all agreed that the best option was a modified version of something KIPP Tulsa does every Wednesday — examine the facts of the big current event or issue of the day and discuss it.

KIPP Tulsa’s student body was already abuzz about the graphic police videos that captured the shooting of Terence Crutcher.

“The students (from the Crutcher family) wanted to make sure their classmates had an opportunity to read about it and learn about it with facts,” McRae said. “They didn’t want to answer the questions from their peers.”

Lee scoured news coverage of Crutcher’s killing for an article written in simple language with the basic facts listed chronologically, and no photos or images from the videos, because too many students had already seen those.

Every adult in the school was given the same charge for meeting with students in groups of 10 or fewer all day Wednesday: Let students lead the discussion.

That meant asking questions to prompt the students to discuss their thoughts and feelings and to offer ideas for how to support each other.

Lee felt compelled to share what she witnessed with her family and friends in a Facebook post Wednesday evening.

She described the youngest students in the building, 10- and 11-year-olds in the fifth grade, as “wide-eyed” and full of questions.

“Why did they have to kill him? Why were they afraid of him? Why does (Crutcher’s daughter) have to live life without a father? What will she do at father-daughter dances? Who will walk her down the aisle? Why did no one help him after he was shot? Hasn’t this happened before? Can we write her cards? Can we protest?” Lee wrote. “One girl closes our group by sharing: ‘I wish white people could give us a chance. We can all come together and get along. We can all be united.’?”

Lee described a group of sixth-grade girls as “red-eyed or withdrawn.”

“They sit next to Mr. Crutcher’s daughter in class. They are her friends. Nearly every student has a tissue as we read the article together,” Lee wrote. “When I open the floor for discussion: silence. It hurts to talk about. It hurts to think about. It hurts.”

The oldest students in the building, 13- and 14-year-olds, are past wide-eyed innocence — and even past the tears.

“They are hardened. They are angry,” Lee wrote. “Some students refuse to hold or look at the article. They speak matter-of-factly. One says she feels like punching someone in the nose.”

Lee never imagined that her words would be shared around the globe, but about 24 hours after she posted it Wednesday evening, her post had been shared by 115,000 Facebook users.

“I shared it because I know the students at our school are not the only students hurting and are not the only students affected. This affects everyone,” Lee told the Tulsa World on Thursday.

“I think you can’t deny the perspective or the feelings of a child. I don’t know that we’ve always heard this side and how this is impacting kids.”

As for McRae, some of the feelings and beliefs he heard children at his school express this week are a cautionary tale for parents and educators who haven’t yet confronted the topic.

“Students were already processing it and making meaning of it,” he said. “To hear them talk about the things that they’ve already assessed about themselves that I know are not true and that they believe — and (that they) fear people who are supposed to keep them safe — hurt me.

He added, “The most courageous and helpful thing to do is start the conversation. To ask students not only what they think but how they feel and to acknowledge that every feeling is OK. Being angry is OK. Being afraid is OK. Being frustrated is OK. Being sad is OK. … Short of that conversation, children are left to fill that voice with a narrative from elsewhere.”

Lee described feeling humbled by students’ reactions to her simply telling them, “I love you.” It’s a sentiment that apparently had gone unsaid amid the school’s hard drive to get even students with the most serious academic deficits back on track to not just graduate from high school but also to complete a college degree.

“We assume — we love our kids, and we assume they know,” Lee said.

As difficult as the week has been at KIPP Tulsa, Lee and McRae said they were astounded by the ways their preteen and adolescent students broke normal social barriers to comfort one another and to reach out to support the Crutcher family with handmade posters, cards and letters.

McRae said he hopes all of the efforts reassure students and keep them on a path of hope and determination.

“I also told them that I am hopeful and that I am committed to being an advocate for them,” he said. “For fighting for them and for helping create the conditions so they can go forward and help build a world that’s better to them than the world we have left them right now.”