How 9 superintendents responded to the Capitol violence

Thoughtful messages to parents and school communities can make a difference during crisis moments.
By: | January 12, 2021
Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

Less than a week ago, a group of individuals violently stormed the U.S. Capitol and breached its doors, halls and rooms, including politicans’ offices and the Senate chambers.

The images of men carrying zip ties and wearing tactical gear, of property being destroyed and the deaths of a civilian and an officer were captured on video and broadcast to the nation.

One of the darkest moments in America’s history forced school superintendents to react quickly and deliver eloquent messages to their stakeholders. Many condemned the violence. Some presented historical context. Some delivered tips and guidance on how to handle these delicate moments. Some made simple pleas on social media.

Michael Smith, superintendent of schools in Beardstown, IL, penned this message on Twitter: “Dear Congress: You should never have to feel unsafe or need to hide under your desk. Sincerely, Every PreK-12 Student and Educator in America.”

Even those that took hard stances offered promises of hope, that there would be better days ahead, even with threats of further action looming before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

More on DA: How to turn D.C. riot into a learning opportunity

In one district, Washoe County in Reno, NV, a recorded call to families that denounced “this assault on our sacred democracy” was met with resistance from some parents who felt the superintendent and school board went too far.

Choosing words carefully in crisis moments can be the difference in reaching all stakeholders or alienating some of them. Sending the right messages to parents and especially children is imperative (there are several links below that can help educators).

Here are snippets of letters superintendents crafted to parents and others over the past week. Did any of them go too far?

Kirsten Vital Brulte, Capistrano, Calif., Unified School District: “The breach of the United States Capitol this week was horrific, and we condemn it in the strongest possible way. In CUSD, we are committed to teaching our students the importance of civility, respecting each other’s differences, and working together to find common ground in peaceful and respectful ways. Breaking into the halls of Congress, destroying property, and threatening the safety of our elected representatives, law enforcement and innocent bystanders in an attempt to disrupt a nearly 250-year-old tradition of the orderly transition of presidential power does not constitute peaceful protesting. It is not acceptable in a democratic society. It is not what we teach the children in our schools.”

Kevin McGowan, Brighton Public Schools, Rochester, NY: “It is clear to me that what we have witnessed a violent insurrection incited by the actions and words of the President. This view has been shared in comments by Democratic and Republican leaders alike. … As this school year began, I was deeply concerned about the very divisive political discourse in our nation and the impact that this could have on our classroom discussions. I believe that our staff did an excellent job of creating an environment free from partisan messaging where thoughtful discussions of different perspectives could take place. I believe that this moment called for a reminder regarding this approach, but do not believe that creating a nonpartisan environment means sanitizing the horrendous activities that occurred. I further believe that the next several weeks may further test our resolve in these matters. It is our goal to continue to focus on providing reassurance to children and teaching them about these matters in an open, inclusive, and nonpartisan manner.”

Aldo Sicoli, Roseville Area Schools, MN: “As teachers and students of U.S. history — including histories of oppressed peoples long absent from textbooks — we recognize the role that white supremacy played in Wednesday’s riot. When a mob of mostly white people is allowed to attack our nation’s Capitol with little resistance, it is white privilege in action. The hateful, racist symbols displayed were distressing and traumatizing for many and should be called out. We recognize that Black, Indigenous and People of Color have long felt the effects of this type of violence and racism. … You have also likely had difficult conversations with your children. The acts of violence illustrate the importance of educating young people on civic engagement and the role each of us plays in our government. Students of all ages need to know about this moment in history, and they need a safe place to express their feelings around it.”

Michael Thomas, Brockton, MA, Public Schools: “When crises happen, our fundamental goal is to reassure students of their safety. We also want to empower older students to engage in important conversations about how to move our country forward. While we can do little to affect how adults behave, we can help the next generation take a stake in changing this country by showing them a better path that involves a deeper level of kindness and mutual respect.”

Rosa Atkins, Jennifer McKeever and Charlottesville VA School Board: “Whether here in Charlottesville, in our nation’s capital, or around the world, we are facing challenges right now. We are not naive about these challenges, but we are still confident in our community, our country, and our Constitution. We also have faith in our schools — the places that teach us how to engage with ideas, how to equip ourselves with facts, how to think critically, how to become civically literate. Just as important as any of those things, in Charlottesville our schools also offer us the opportunity to meet — and befriend — people who are different from us in race, religion, politics, and life experiences. Working with young people is a true source of hope. Only when we are grounded in fact, hope, and our interdependent humanity can we set aside destructive violence and work constructively for a better future.”

Guadalupe Guerrero, Portland, Ore., Public Schools: “If we want to champion positive transformative change, we have to fight misinformation with education and support the principles of a just democracy. We stand with our students, families and communities in the journey for a better future for everyone … Despite the chilling images of violence and unrest that we witnessed yesterday, I remain optimistic about the power of democracy and our role as educators to support it. Educators have the opportunity to support our students’ understanding of our democracy and to help them obtain objective knowledge of current events and the outcomes of elections. …  I believe we will get through this together and emerge from our trials and obstacles stronger because of the strength of our community and care for one another.”

Michael Hinojosa, Dallas ISD: “The rioters’ disrespectful and dangerous display is a striking contrast to the important work educators strive to do each day to teach students about the sacred democratic principles that define this country – principles that include respect and lawfulness. The attempt to overthrow a free and fair election, as determined by multiple courts, and discard the will of the people who voted in the election, is unacceptable and a damaging example to young learners. … To the extent this event prompts frank conversations as a community about fairness, racism, public service and the impact of decisions, we may find a silver lining in this dangerous moment. Perhaps one of the most crucial [challenges] is taking the time to show students the real meaning of patriotism and to demonstrate how to heal, rebuild, and come together for the greater good.”

Further guidance

In her message to the Evergreen School District community in San Jose, Calif., superintendent Emy Flores offered a holistic approach in addressing the Capitol incident.

She wrote: “The images and information that students are seeing and hearing on the news can be confusing and disturbing and can exacerbate the stresses and anxiety that are occurring due to the pandemic. Our teachers recognize that students may be processing this in different ways.”

Flores emphasized that both principals and teachers were receiving guidance on how to answer questions from students while delivering fact-based and appropriate information sensitively to students at all grade levels.

“We seek to encourage constructive discussions about our current events and model civil discourse,” she said in the letter. “Being very mindful of the age and grade level of the students, the current events are a teachable moment for our young people.”

In that messaging, Flores offered encouragement to parents struggling to allay the right words and help in the dialogue with students.

“We recognize that our parents may be at a loss for how to discuss these events with their child when approached with questions or their child’s opinions about what is happening,” she said. “I encourage families to create a space for dialogue, as this is not only a teaching opportunity but also important for a child’s sense of security and wellbeing.”

She offered a series of tips and questions for parents to ask children that could work at any moment in the current climate, including:

  • “How are you doing? Do you have any thoughts, comments, or reactions to events that happened?
  • What have you observed since the election in November?
  • How should our leaders be talking to each other?
  • How are you feeling? If you are feeling anxious, upset, angry, etc…, what might help these feelings?”

Several superintendents also added further guidance to parents in their messages, including these resources to help foster civil, productive and heartfelt discussions:

National Association of School Psychologists: Talking to Children About Violence

The Learning Network: 10 Ways to Talk to Students About Sensitive Issues in the News

Commonsense Media: Talking to Kids About the Violence at the U.S. Capitol

Commonsense Media: Talking to Children about Tragedies and other News Events

Kurtz Psychology: How to Talk to Kids About Current Events and What They See on the News

Sesame Street in Communities: Traumatic Experiences

Anti-Defamation League: Table Talk: Family Conversations about Current Events

NPR: When the News is Scary, What to Say to Kids

NEA: Talking to Kids about the Attack on the Capitol

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.