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Would you have spoken up during Starbucks arrest of two black men? White teachers at a Delaware County school debate

A black Penn professor helps staff at the Benchmark School in Media learn how to navigate issues of race both inside and outside the school.

Howard Stevenson listens to teachers Monday at the Benchmark School in Media, where he teaches them how to address conflicts and conversations that revolve around race.
Howard Stevenson listens to teachers Monday at the Benchmark School in Media, where he teaches them how to address conflicts and conversations that revolve around race.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Howard Stevenson is addressing a room full of white people.

The black professor from the University of Pennsylvania asks them how they would have reacted had they been at the Philadelphia Starbucks where police arrested two black men earlier this month, sparking national outcry and an apology from the city's police commissioner.

The 45 staff members at the private first-through-eighth-grade school in Media break into small groups and consider it.

"I would have been angry," Karen Berry, who teaches first and second grades at the Benchmark School, says. "I would have felt that they were being singled out."

"I would have been clueless about what was going on," replies Adam Lemisch, a psychologist at the school. He acknowledges he may have thought the men — 23-year-old entrepreneurs who were waiting for a business associate when the store manager called police — had done something wrong. "In the moment I would have just been like: 'Oh my God, what's going on? Like there's something I need to be worried about?' "

The emotions — fear, confusion, anger — reflect the complex ways that racially charged incidents like the one at Starbucks can unfold through the lens of white privilege.

At Benchmark, where the staff is mostly white, Stevenson, a professor of urban education, has been helping teachers learn how to address incidents with racial undertones, from the way students talk to one another — a white student once jokingly called a black student "sissy chocolate" — to discrimination they may witness outside school grounds.

"There's a privilege in being white," said Robb Gaskins, head of the school. He is white and his wife, Jennifer, who is Asian, is the only instructor of color at the school. "We recognized that we had students of color" — they account for more than two dozen of the 182 students — "and there were situations that arose where it was clear to us they were coming from a different perspective" than white teachers, Gaskins said.

So the school sought Stevenson's help. On the minds of everyone Monday, his fourth visit to the school this year, were the Starbucks arrests.

‘Maybe I need to, as a white male, start questioning things more’

Lemisch, the school psychologist, said seeing police walk into the Starbucks would have made him think, "Man, we need to leave."

"I would have assumed that something happened," he said. "I wouldn't have necessarily been outraged then."

Learning more about the arrests, however, did make him upset.

"Maybe I need to, as a white male, start questioning things more," Lemisch said.

>> Read more: Black people stopped at much higher rate indoors than white people in Center City

How people view the police can influence whether they speak up or give officers the benefit of the doubt in an incident like the one at Starbucks, Stevenson told the teachers.

"Somebody who doesn't trust the police might think very differently about, 'What risks should I take,' versus if I do trust the police," he said.

A video recording of the arrest shows the different reactions of white customers: Some questioned the police. One appeared to walk away. Another sat quietly on his laptop, glancing as officers led the men out in handcuffs.

‘Fear that violence would erupt’

When Melinda Rahm pictures herself being at that Starbucks, she knows she would want to protect her son from possible violence.

>> Read more: Man arrested at Starbucks wondered if he would make it home alive

"How old is your son?" Stevenson asked her.

"He's 13," she said.

"And what would you be protecting him from?" Stevenson asked.

"In the moment," Rahm contemplated, "physical — you know, 'Get down.' I don't know what will happen." She and her son might have decided to leave, she said.

Another teacher described feeling more stressed about how to respond to the situation than the situation itself. One said she would start recording on her phone rather than intervene.

‘If we don’t stand up in those moments, then we don’t admit that these things are happening around us all the time’

Teri Watkins, a science teacher at Benchmark, said she would have been one of the people speaking out in the Starbucks.

"Think about what it would be like if that was your child," she said. "Or if that was your brother."

Watkins emotionally recalled breaking up a tense situation in Chester.

"I saw two young African American girls fist fighting, and there was a large group of people around them, all African American, cars pulled over, videotaping them fight," Watkins, who is white, recalled. "I had my two children in the car, and I pulled over, and I went and broke that fight up.

"I don't know how I did it, other than I used to be the kid who got beat up," Watkins said. "And in that moment, I saw two girls — one clearly had the upper hand — and I thought, 'Somebody has to do something.' And it wasn't about me being white in a black neighborhood. It was about: 'It was wrong.'"

Stevenson asked Watkins how she felt opening up to to the staff about her personal experiences and race.

"My heart is pounding out of my chest right now, and I'm sweating," she said. Recognizing her reaction is part of what Stevenson teaches: The more that people talk about race and acknowledge how it can affect them physically and mentally, the more prepared they are to deal with unexpected situations, like the one at Starbucks.

"If we don't stand up in those moments," Watkins said, "then we don't admit that these things are happening around us all the time."

>> Read more: Starbucks racial bias training can't just be done in one day, Penn professor says