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Many Utah schools decide to stop or downplay 9/11 commemorations

Published September 10, 2007 1:10 am
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Sept. 11, which burned such a vivid, permanent mark onto the minds of most adults, is beginning to fade into just another significant historical event in the minds of many school-age children.

When the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks is commemorated Tuesday, Utah schools will not uniformly hold assemblies or even talk much about Sept. 11, preferring instead to tackle the topic in U.S. history classes at the end of the year with the rest of the 21st century.

Children simply aren't as connected to the event as adults, says Beth Johnston, East Layton Elementary School principal. The oldest of her students was only 6 years old on Sept. 11, 2001.

She said her school teaches respect for the U.S., but does not commemorate Sept. 11.

"We don't want our kids thinking about that. We want them to move on," Johnston said. "It might be age appropriate for older students to acknowledge and talk about it, but for our younger kids, we don't want them to dwell on violence."

Eastwood Elementary School in Salt Lake City generally observes a moment of silence, but leaves it at that, secretary Tina Jensen said.

"We try to keep it pretty low key because some of the kids weren't even born," Jensen said. "We try not to scare them."

Some educators say they're in a sticky spot when it comes to teaching or commemorating Sept. 11 at school. On one hand, it was long enough ago that many of today's students barely remember it and feel little emotional connection to it. On the other hand, it was so recent it can be hard to explain Sept. 11 and its consequences in a comprehensive way, said Robert Austin, K-12 social studies specialist for the Utah State Office of Education.

"There is so much additional context and so many other stories there, that it can become daunting to a teacher to figure out how to be selective enough, sensitive enough and to provide the right balance and depth," Austin said.

Teaching Sept. 11 is not part of the state's core social studies curriculum, but might be included in revisions expected this school year, depending on what the community wants, Austin said.

Still, he said it would difficult for U.S. history teachers not to mention Sept. 11 in their classes within the context of modern history.

West High School U.S. history teacher Dave Harper said he teaches students about Sept. 11 at the end of the school year. He presents the tragedy within the context of global conflicts between cultures and explains how the attacks led to later events.

Harper said he tries to be sensitive to the fact that the consequences of Sept. 11 are still playing out.

"It will be 50 years before we have the research and historians and we're away from the people and politics . . . before we have the real story," Harper said.

Scott Crump of Bingham High School in South Jordan said he teaches students about Sept. 11 in both his "American Problems" and regular history classes. He sometimes talks about Sept. 11 on Sept. 11 and at other times, he addresses the topics at different points in the year.

He asks his students to write essays about whether they would like to be remembered as the "9/11 generation." Crump said Sept. 11 was a generation-defining event the same way President Kennedy's assassination was for baby boomers and Pearl Harbor was for their parents.

In the same way America moved on from those events, students today are also moving on from Sept. 11, Crump said.

"Now, I don't think it's as emotional as it was," Crump said. "I still remember where I was when Kennedy was shot and I remember how tragic I felt and how emotional, but after all these years . . . I know it's just a part of history and there's nothing I can do about it."

Though many schools are moving away from grand commemorations of Sept. 11, some are holding fast.

Eagle Mountain's Eagle Valley Elementary School plans to have a National Guardsman speak to students on Sept. 11 about patriotism. The school also will have a Humvee behind the school during lunch, Principal Keith Conley said. Wednesday, students will wear red, white and blue to school.

"It's important to continue to teach our students about the importance of the sacrifice [soldiers] make for us and not just to forget 9/11," Conley said. "That's why we've asked men and women to serve throughout the world to protect the United States."

He also mentions other historical events such as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor over the loudspeaker each year.

Conley said the commemorations will continue as long as he's still principal.

After that, it's anyone's guess whether Eagle Valley will join the ranks of schools that are moving toward remembering Sept. 11 only within the context of a history lesson.

"It may seem kind of saddening at one level, but it's also kind of encouraging," said Austin of the state Office of Education. "It's important for students to understand there are traumatic events in their lives that have an impact on them, but people survive. People figure out how to move ahead."


* LISA SCHENCKER can be reached at lschencker@sltrib.com or 801-257-8999.




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