The 1992 Los Angeles riots which were spurred by the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King are two decades into the past. Some Southern California schools, however, are finding that these events have a lot to teach their students, especially right now when the shootings of unarmed African American men in Florida, Oklahoma and California are headlining the news. One school, the Social Justice Leadership Academy, uses unorthodox materials like plays and poetry, and even first-person recollections recorded by students' parents, to bring to life the period when racial tensions were high, distrust between minority communities and the police was endemic and a jury's verdict sparked the fire that swept the city into disorder and chaos.
But two decades after the riots sparked massive violence that would leave dozens dead and thousands injured, lessons about them appear to be limited in Southern California classrooms. For many teachers, the pressure to teach content that will be tested in state standardized tests and Advanced Placement exams next month has crowded out time for the riots, however crucial they are to city history and the nation's larger civil rights struggle.
The focus on areas that are covered by the state's history standards means that teachers are reluctant to dedicate any significant class time to covering the riots, regardless of how they feel about their relative importance. Since the Los Angeles Unified School District doesn't make teaching them mandatory, many California history classes skip over the material altogether or touch on the subject in a cursory way. Still, for those who want to tackle the riots head on, the district plans to publish supplementary lesson plan for teachers to use, although they will be marked "optional."
Michael Reed, the district's history specialist, said the push to raise test scores has made principals "hawkish" about directing teachers to focus on the areas that will be tested. Test questions from the state's eighth- and 11th-grade U.S. history exams released by state officials don't stretch beyond the 1960s, although Reed said the latest tests included a question from the Nixon era of the 1970s.
"If students are taught what they will be held responsible for on tests, they do much better," he said. "I remember teachers who would close their doors and teach whatever their pet era was. It's fine, but California test scores go down the drain."
Merri Weir, who teaches U.S. History at the Carson High School, says that just trying to squeeze in all the subjects covered by the state's standardized exams is already a struggle, but explains that she still makes time to cover the riots because she feels it is an important step in her students' understanding the world and the city they live in today.
"The riots and 1992 feel like a time period we can never get to because there are just not enough hours in the day," she said. "But it's really important for my students to learn about what happens when a community breaks down or has no hope and no sense of justice."