The Civics Teacher Who Turned His Arrest Into A Classroom Lesson

The Civics Teacher Who Turned His Arrest Into A Classroom Lesson

9:31am May 05, 2015
Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.
Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.
Erika Beras/WESA
  • Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.

    Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.

    Erika Beras/WESA

  • Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.

    Dennis Henderson teaches at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh.

    Erika Beras/WESA

  • Henderson prepares his seventh-graders for a mock trial competition.

    Henderson prepares his seventh-graders for a mock trial competition.

    Erika Beras/WESA

Geography, history, civics.

At Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh, Dennis Henderson teaches all of these, and a few things more.

"You don't want to sound ghetto when you talk to people," says eighth-grader Malajah Smith, quoting Henderson. "Because people would think, 'Oh, you're one of those black, ghetto kids.' "

"He tells us how to stand up straight and how you shake people's hands," adds student Sharae Blair.

Henderson is all about life's unwritten rules and helping kids navigate them. He is black, as are 99 percent of his middle schoolers, most of whom also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"The truth of our society: It doesn't matter how good you are at something," says Henderson. "If you are African-American, you've got to make sure that you are extremely good to get the due recognition that you deserve."

The 40-year-old, who came to the classroom from social work, says race and racism have always informed his teaching. Early on, he told his students: If you study and follow my advice, the world will be open to you, though it won't always be fair — as he was reminded on June 26, 2013.

'Wow'

Henderson had been at a public meeting in Pittsburgh about improving community-police relations. Tensions were high. Afterward, he stood in the street by his car, talking with a news photographer. A police cruiser sped by.

Henderson yelled, "Wow."

The car stopped, and a white officer asked if he had a problem. Henderson requested the officer's badge number and hit record on his cellphone. The officer told him to put the phone down. When he didn't, the officer arrested him.

Henderson was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing the road and resisting arrest. Images of him, handcuffed, hit the evening news.

"My mom said, 'I just saw your teacher on TV.' And I was surprised because I wouldn't think Mr. Henderson would be on the news," Sharae says.

Henderson spent the night in jail.

The Teachable Moment

Soon, though, the district attorney dropped all charges. The city found that the officer had acted improperly and disciplined him.

Henderson sued the city, and the city settled.

Instead of trying to hide the incident or quickly move on, the teacher spoke openly about his experience to colleagues, students and their parents.

When Henderson missed school because of legal proceedings, he carefully explained to his students what was happening. It became a teachable moment. Henderson even organized outdoor activity days with the Pittsburgh Police Department.

"If anybody was dealt with that traumatic experience, I think that they would change the way that they teach," says Vasilios Scoumis, the school principal.

Henderson prepares his seventh-graders for a mock trial competition.

Henderson prepares his seventh-graders for a mock trial competition.

Erika Beras/WESA

But Henderson didn't.

"The reason I teach is a passion coming from where I'm from and seeing the things that I saw. So, all this did was amplify it a little bit more," he says.

His students agree.

"Well, it did change. It made [his teaching] better — because he had an experience with it," student William Taylor says. "And I think he can teach us more lessons because he had more of an experience than just reading about it."

One day earlier this year, Henderson was preparing his seventh-grade class for a mock trial competition. After discussing the case with his students, Henderson answered questions and offered advice.

"What actually changes our society?" he asked.

"Action," whispered one student.

"Actions where?"

"In the court," said another student.

"In the courtrooms," Henderson bellowed. "So it's very important that we can go marching and protesting and being as mad as we want. But, until we actually have more of you guys working in courtrooms ..."

Henderson's voice trailed off a moment. Then he finished:

"Change will be very limited — unless you do it on your own."

Copyright 2015 WESA-FM. To see more, visit http://wesa.fm/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's a lot of power in a narrative in just hearing someone's story. So we're going to get this story started without saying yet what it's about. You'll understand as you listen to the story of a middle school teacher in Pittsburgh who wants to help students navigate a world of unwritten rules. He told his story to Erika Beras of member station WESA.

DENNIS HENDERSON: Manny, get over here and tie your shoes and tuck in your shirt, man. You look like you're falling apart.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Dennis Henderson teaches geography, history and civics at Manchester Academic Charter School. He is black, as are 99 percent of his students. Eighty-five percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But Henderson doesn't just teach social studies. Eighth-graders Malajah Smith and Sharae Blair.

MALAJAH: He said you don't want to sound ghetto when you talk to people because people will think that oh, you're one of them black ghetto kids.

SHARAE: He tells us how, like, to stand up straight and how you shake people's hands.

BERAS: Henderson says it's important to hold his students to a high standard.

HENDERSON: The truth of our society - I mean, it doesn't matter how good you are at something - if you're African-American, you've got to make sure that you're extremely good to get the due recognition that you deserve.

BERAS: Henderson, who is 40, came to teaching from social work. Early on, he told his students if you study and follow my advice, the world will be open to you, though that doesn't mean it will always be fair, as he was reminded on June 26, 2013.

HENDERSON: It happened so fast - you know, nobody plans on getting arrested.

BERAS: Henderson was at a public meeting about improving community-police relations. Afterwards, he stood in the street by his car talking to a news photographer. A police cruiser sped by. Henderson yelled wow. The car stopped. A white officer asked if he had a problem. Henderson requested the officer's badge number and hit record on his cell phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE VIDEO)

JONATHAN GROMEK: Stop playing on your phone.

HENDERSON: I'm allowed to do this.

GROMEK: No, you're not...

HENDERSON: I have every right to do this.

GROMEK: All right, you know what? Put your hands behind your back.

HENDERSON: Can you hold my phone for me?

GROMEK: Put your hands behind your back.

HENDERSON: Wow. Are you - are you all witnessing this?

BERAS: Dennis Henderson was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing the road and resisting arrest. He spent the night in jail. Images of him handcuffed hit the evening news. Again, student Sharae Blair.

SHARAE: My mom said I just saw your teacher on TV, and I was surprised because I wouldn't think Mr. Henderson would be on the news.

BERAS: After calling his family, Henderson had to call his boss.

VASILIOS SCOUMIS: I just know his character.

BERAS: Principal Vasilios Scoumis.

SCOUMIS: And I know the kind of man Mr. Henderson is, so it was shock more than anything.

BERAS: The DA quickly dropped all charges. The city found that the officer had acted improperly. He was disciplined. So how has all of this changed Henderson?

HENDERSON: The reason I teach is a passion of coming from where I'm from and seeing the things that I saw. So all this, it was kind of amplified a little bit more.

WILLIAM: Well, it did change. It made it better because he had a experience with it.

BERAS: Student William Taylor.

WILLIAM: And I think that he can teach us more lessons because he had more of an experience than just reading about it.

BERAS: Today, Henderson is preparing Taylor's seventh-grade class for a mock trial competition.

HENDERSON: So you got this side over here, you are the prosecution team.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What's that?

BERAS: After his students discuss their case, Henderson answers question and offers advice.

HENDERSON: What actually changes our society? What? Actions - actions where?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: In the courtrooms.

HENDERSON: In the courtrooms. You know, we could go marching and protesting and being as mad as we want. But until we actually have more of you guys working in courtrooms...

BERAS: Henderson's voice trails off a moment. Then he says change will be very limited, unless you do it on your own. For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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