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Supporting Students After Racial Incidents

By Derek Francis | November 2021

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In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old, unarmed, Black 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 a Black birdwatcher for asking her to leash her dog. In March 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot by police in her own home. Then, on May 25, 2020, in my hometown of Minneapolis, we watched the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in a horrific video taken by a bystander. 

These traumatic events have ripped open emotional wounds. Our students are hurting, and they need us. But how do we respond? As our country and our schools try to heal and make changes to a fundamentally flawed system, we must actively engage students in conversations about race. Our students are looking for ways to talk about and process a wide range of emotions. School counselors are called to do the social/emotional work of fighting racism. 

Knowing how to support students after major racial incidents can be challenging. Most school counselors graduate with only one three-credit course focusing on multicultural/cross-cultural counseling and never had the conversation or training to support students in these types of events. Some of us worry we’ll say the wrong thing or worry 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 speak up as school counselors and create a safe space for all students to process and navigate the recent events. As school counselors, we have the essential skills to support all students.

Speak Up and Say Something
It may be hard and outside of your comfort zone, especially for white school counselors, but it’s important to speak up and work to effect change. Your students need you. They have watched and experienced so much trauma recently and they are scared.

It is our duty to create a safe space for their developing minds to process what is going on. We must all consider and address our bias and privilege to facilitate compassionate, authentic conversations around race. Listen and let your students know that you will do better to work for change, that you want to learn and that you will support them unfailingly. I encourage you to talk to your own children and family and to 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 to address this challenging topic. We cannot continue to consider this topic off limits simply because it feels unsettling. Do not wait for your students or staff of color to bring things up. Take the lead, and beat them to it. 

Reach Out to Students
School counselors must do the active social/emotional outreach to students. Sending a message designed to let all students know you are aware of the recent events and the challenges they bring is an important first step. This type of messaging is crucial, especially in a virtual learning space, where we miss out on casual interactions and natural class conversations that occur in person. Being intentional about how you we will address race and equity is vital. What race and equity-based professional development will you and peers attend to address gaps in your skillset? What classroom lessons, small groups and individual counseling sessions will you make available to have conversations on race and identity?

Students need a comfortable space to engage with peers, to hear others’ perspectives and experiences, and to empathize and provide support on race issues. Some students also need a space to find affinity. In my experience working with students of color, I have seen the pain on students’ faces when they took the leap of faith to share how emotionally draining a racial event at school or in the community has been, only to have others invalidate their emotions. Validating students’ race and cultural identity is a key component in academic achievement, college and career planning and social/emotional well-being. If you feel nervous or unprepared to facilitate these kinds of conversations, prioritize this as your own personal needs assessment. Self-reflection and understanding your own bias, privilege and microaggressions is paramount in doing this work. No matter how many resources you have, the work begins in your heart. You must truly have a heart for supporting students, whether they are Black, Somali, white, wearing a hijab, documented or undocumented. Attending professional trainings is one part of awareness, but we all must move from awareness to action.

Help Students Process
Race incidents can be extremely traumatic for students and staff, particularly those of color. The impact of historical racial trauma during a global pandemic has shaken us to our core. We must help students open up and process the different triggers 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. How are our Asian students handling the recent increase of microaggressions? Who are the underrepresented populations in your community, and what are ways you can offer support? Be mindful and empathize with your students and their experiences. They may be experiencing racial battle fatigue.

Students may share things with you that you can’t relate to or don’t understand. Have the cultural humility to learn to see from the other person’s viewpoint. One thing many educators worry about in doing multicultural work is making a mistake. Having humility and asking for grace and forgiveness is key in this process. This is a lifelong journey, not a checkbox. Also, remember that you can turn to on the fundamentals of empathy, active listening, appropriate follow-up questions and reflection. This work is on the shoulders of all school counselors, not just school counselors of color. I am confident that as a collective we can help students of all races feel more connected and achieve their academic and postsecondary goals.

Derek Francis is manager of counseling services, Minneapolis Public Schools, Minneapolis, Minn. He can be reached at