Ethics students examine Trayvon Martin case

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:19 PM

Laura Isensee

MIAMI -- In a Miami Gardens, Fla., high school ethics class, today's lesson is Trayvon Martin.

Students don't mention his name until nearly an hour into the 90-minute class. The teens, all black, already know his story. He attended Miami Carol City Senior High just last year. He died at 17, the same age as many of them. And they love to wear hoodies, just like Trayvon did the night he was shot.

So when their teacher, Clinton Mitchell, shows a photo of Trayvon in a hoodie and asks "Suspicious or not?," the debate exposes raw emotion.

"For me personally, it's not ethical to judge somebody on just what they wear," said Daniel Tippenhauer, 17. "It's crazy how he was judged just on his skin tone and a hoodie. It shouldn't be that way."

More than a month has passed since Trayvon was killed in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Attorney-turned-teacher Clinton Mitchell has tried to harness the hot topic into a teaching moment.

On Monday -- his third ethics class with Trayvon's case as its theme -- Mitchell, 27, projected images of men in hoodies. First, a white man in a dark hoodie. Next, Muhammad Ali. Then U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., in a hoodie on the floor of Congress. Last, Trayvon.

The teens grappled with many of the issues that have polarized the nation -- race, gun laws, self-defense and justice. But what happened with Trayvon has taught them something else about growing up. Life isn't always fair.

"It's a wake-up call for all of us because we're young and we don't look at life to be so evil," said Jarquerria Perry. "It's making us grow up to see society as what it is. It's not fair. Everything that should happen doesn't happen. Some things you have to fight for to make a difference."

In a demand for justice in Trayvon's case, more than 1,000 Carol City students -- including most of the students in the ethics class -- walked out last month and marched on major streets, drawing national media attention.

Justice is at the core of their law program. Their classroom houses a mock courtroom, complete with judge's bench and jury seats.

Today's talk goes beyond the classroom and the case itself.

"We want justice for him. But what about our kids? And our kids' kids? For us, it's for Trayvon, but he's gone. It's beyond Trayvon," said Antonisha Alexander, 17. "It's actually wanting this written in history so others can have justice as well, so this doesn't happen again."

In previous classes, Mitchell asked students to tell the story of Trayvon and Zimmerman as if they were addressing a jury. It gave them practice for their upcoming mock trial competition.

On Monday, there were few easy answers about image and perception. "If I came to this class with some short shorts on, everybody would probably say, 'Oh, she's a slut.'?" said Perry, who, like most of her classmates, wore business attire, the regular dress on Mondays in the law program.

"You judge from the cover of the book, not what's inside it."

Her classmates giggled, but agreed.

Still, Mitchell pressed the issue: "There are some things that you guys can wear that will trigger certain types of reaction."

"Just because it triggers that reaction doesn't justify it," replied Tippenhauer, the school's drum major and aspiring professor.

Other Miami-Dade teachers have used Trayvon's case in class, for example, explaining the state's Stand Your Ground law. "We don't need to wait for the next textbook to address it from a historical context," said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The district has urged principals to allow students to express themselves in productive ways -- through chalk murals and poetry readings, for example -- after dozens of Florida schools staged protests last month. Most were peaceful, while a few flashed into disorder, like the ransacking of a Walgreens drugstore in North Miami Beach.

At Booker T. Washington Senior High in Overtown, Fla., freshmen organized an assembly last week with music, poetry and a panel discussion with questions like, Is it too late for justice? As a tribute, the cheerleaders kicked and yelled for Trayvon and others who've died. They stomped their feet and shouted "Give 'em what they want! Throw your Skittles out!" and tossed packets of the candy Trayvon carried when he was killed.

At Carol City High, Mitchell told his own experiences about image. When he attended Carol City he played running back on the football team. But he also made good grades in the law program. So classmates couldn't decide what clique he belonged to: jock or nerd. Perceptions and misperceptions continued after high school, he recounted. How other law students at Howard University judged him for what he wore and where he came from. Or police encounters.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've been stopped and have not been doing anything wrong," said Mitchell, who is a former assistant state attorney in Illinois.

"You were being black," said Nandi Kinlock.

If they were leading a class on Trayvon's case, several students said race should be taken out.

In fact, that's the first lesson Mitchell wants to teach with Trayvon: "Justice is blind, and justice is for everyone."


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