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Today's lesson: how to handle an encounter with police

One of the most important lessons middle and high school students will likely learn during LCPS’s summer school has nothing to do with reading or writing. It deals with reality.

“We teach individuals how to react with law enforcement safely with the ultimate goal of getting home,” said B.J. Council, retired deputy police chief for the city of Durham and founder of the interactive educational organization You & 5-0.

 Black woman in police uniform talks to seat middle school students in school library.She’d just spent the day with rotating groups of middle school students in the media center at Kinston High School, answering their questions about police procedures, listening to their concerns about perceived racism during encounters with police and reminding them that how such an encounter turns out is largely up to them.

“What I’m asking you to do is stay in your own head,” she told the students. “Who’s responsible for your actions? You are.”

She preaches compliance. “I know it’s an emotional moment in this climate, especially for black and brown folks, but the primary goal is to understand it’s a job (police) have to do,” Council said in an interview. “You may not agree with it, but the ultimate goal is to try to breathe and get through this interaction.”

Providing the series of You & 5-0 presentations this summer fits into LCPS’s plan of including social and emotion learning experiences for students during its Summer Enrichment Academy (SEA); but actually the interest surfaced two years ago at Rochelle Middle School under then principal Felicia Solomon – who is now LCPS’s Student Services and Equity Officer – and spread to Kinston High and principal Kellen Bryant in 2020, just as coronavirus closed schools and ended group gatherings.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Bryant said now that the sessions are back on track. A grant provided through the Kinston Police Department funds Council’s appearances.

In pre-assessments given students before they hear from Council, “they air their views on relationships with police and interactions and how to interact and stigma that are out there,” Bryant said. “This allows students to share feeling about experiences they’ve had or family members have had. They can talk through those experiences with a trained individual and then take that conversation and follow it up with a post-assessment the trainer then uses to determine if they’re driving their instruction in the right manner.”

Though Bryant plans to make the sessions part of the fall semester for her KHS students, summer school – one of the earliest opportunities for groups of students to gather in person – affords a great time to bring Council’s information to a broader group of students, according to Solomon.

“The reality of it is that when not just the nation but the world saw what happened to George Floyd that opened the floodgates for conversation, which had never happened,” Solomon said. “It was just important to have this conversation because the pandemic prevented us from being able to bring everyone together and for children to express how they really felt. The reality is there’s a measure of trauma.”

In the age of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Stephon Clark and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and scores of other Black people killed in confrontations with law enforcement in recent years, compliance is a hard sell.

If the classes with middle schoolers are any guide, the high school students scheduled to hear Council’s message of self-control on Wednesday at Kinston High will be engaged but not without their doubts.

 “What these kids with social media are constantly looking at – these 30-second clips of black bodies and law enforcement – they’re not believing anything except they’re going to kill us,” Council said. “So a lot of it, based on what they’re seeing, is: They’re going to do something to me.”

As a police officer for 27 years, as a Black woman and a victim herself of discrimination, Council brings a unique perspective to the discussion of law enforcement’s responsibilities and a civilian’s rights. She is not blind to the potential for police overreach, nor is she dismissive of the power equation at the heart of any brush with the law.

And she doesn’t bristle with a student suggests she’s simply trying to justify law enforcement’s actions.

“I’m just trying to give you a perspective so you’ll understand,” Council responded. “I don’t need you to like it. It’s a job (for police). This is what they do, this is why they do what they do; but I’m trying to get you to do what you need to do to get home.

“Some people might have the need for the police,” she said. “What you want is for that officer to treat you like a human being and respect you. And if you don’t get that, the power you have is to file a complaint.”

Photo caption:

B.J. Council, retired deputy police chief for the city of Durham and founder of You & 5-0, talks with middle school students about ‘how to react with law enforcement safely with the ultimate goal of getting home.’