By Jon Busdeker and Erica Rodriguez, Orlando Sentinel
6:52 PM CDT, April 1, 2012
While adults continue the emotional debate over the circumstances of Trayvon Martin's death, kids are listening and asking questions of their own.
Across Central Florida, conversations about racism, stereotypes and Florida's "stand your ground" law are playing out among children and teenagers during class, after school and on the football field.
In the month since Trayvon's death, educators, youth pastors, coaches, parents and mentors have been discussing the complex case with kids, explaining the issues, separating fact from fiction and trying to find a lesson in the tragedy.
The basic, indisputable facts that have spark international outrage: Trayvon, 17, was walking through a Sanford gated community when he was shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 during a struggle. Trayvon, who was black, was unarmed. Zimmerman has not been arrested despite numerous rallies and online petitions.
Chris Lawrence, president of Blue Chip Athletics of Central Florida, a Sanford-based flag-football and cheerleading organization, expected the black and white teenagers in his league to discuss the shooting.
As the controversy began heating up in March, Lawrence said he didn't let rumors and tensions spread. Instead, he and the coaches initiated the discussion with the kids.
"We've taken a very proactive approach," Lawrence said. "We talk to them about it."
Coaches have been telling players not to "condemn a whole bunch of people for one person's actions," he said.
He also has been cautioning them to wait until all the facts are known. In one conversation with his football players, he asked whether they ever had lost a compact disc, blamed a sibling and then later found it under their own bed.
His lesson: Don't jump to conclusions.
"You can't be angry about something that you don't even know what happened," he said.
Representatives from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, which focuses on empowering black females and includes mentoring young girls, said what happened to Trayvon Martin offers a chance to talk about race and society.
"There's always a teachable moment," said Veronica Smith, vice president of the Central Florida chapter. "We need to have a national dialogue about this."
Chapter President Deloris Batson said the shooting reinforces the need for the honest discussion many black parents have with their children about racism.
"There is an issue in this country and around the world about how black males are treated," Batson said.
Smith suggested that when kids ask questions about Trayvon, Zimmerman, the Sanford police, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Florida's "stand your ground" law, there's only one option: "You tell them the truth."
At Leesburg High School, Danny Morris, an American-government teacher, is just beginning to cover the civil-rights movement and spent a good portion of his 45-minute class talking with students about the case. He used the federal investigation as an opportunity to explain the justice system and the rallies to explain why historic racial tensions in the South exist.
"It was just a natural segue," he said. "Anything that gets the kids excited and asking questions is great if they can make a connection, and this does."
Sanford schools were on spring break when the national outcry kicked into high gear with a rally that drew thousands to Fort Mellon Park on March 22. When students returned to class March 26, most were familiar with the shooting and the controversy.
Seminole County school officials sent out an email before the kids returned, alerting staff to support any student who had questions regarding the shooting.
"When our students have questions or concerns, we want them to know that their teachers, or the adults in our schools, will do our best to help them understand or provide resources for them," said Robin Dehlinger, director of Seminole's middle schools.
Dabrion Waters, a 17-year-old Leesburg sophomore who attended a Sanford rally for the slain teen, said many students at the beginning of last week were confused about the case, which led to a few heated debates. But by Friday, that sentiment had changed.
"Most kids are saying they're tired of hearing about it," he said.
Ryan Walker, an associate pastor at the nondenominational CrossPointe Church in Orlando, said he has had "limited conversations" with kids about the case, but he's prepared to talk about it when the topic does come up.
Walker spoke about the shooting and the aftermath using biblical references, explaining that the fall of man and sin go back to the Book of Genesis.
"This is a result of the world being an imperfect place," he said.
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