Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s voice broke as he recounted the last moments of George Floyd’s life as he lay dying on a Minneapolis street

“I am haunted by the sound of his voice, begging to breathe, begging for life and we must address that trauma head on,” Thurmond said during an address on Facebook Monday. “We must have hard conversations.”

Floyd, an African American man, was asphyxiated by a white police officer who pinned him to the ground with his knee for more than seven minutes, according to an independent autopsy released today.

Thurmond and other California Department of Education officials plan to meet with leaders in education, government and law enforcement to talk about racial bias and how education can teach empathy and tolerance and build racial justice. The department will offer online resources on racism and implicit bias on its website in the future. In the meantime, the email account createracialjustice@gmail.com has been set up so people can offer suggestions about what the department can do to promote racial justice. 

“I have to admit it has been difficult for me to find my voice, to try to get my mind around such senseless acts that have occurred,” Thurmond said. “It has been difficult for me to make sense of how a man can beg and plead for his life and still have his life snuffed out. It has been hard for me as a black man, who every day thinks about the impacts of race. I’ve struggled to know how and what to say about what has happened in the aftermath and killing of George Floyd.”

Thurmond understands adversity. He left the Bay Area at age 6 and was raised by a relative in Philadelphia after his mother died of cancer. He returned to the Bay Area in the late 1990s and worked for two decades with marginalized youth as a social worker and in nonprofit management, while moving up the political ladder from school board member to state Assemblyman.

While serving in the Assembly Thurmond taught civics and life skills and offered one-on-one counseling through a nonprofit three times a week at Camp Sweeney, Alameda County’s youth detention center. 

Thurmond was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2018. Since he has been in office he has made it a priority to get more black and brown teachers into the classroom and to close the achievement gap — the disparity in academic achievement between white and Asian students and their lower-performing black and Hispanic peers.

The office of superintendent of public instruction offers its occupants limited power to make policy, but a big megaphone to influence opinion. On Monday, Thurmond — the state’s second African American superintendent of public instruction — pulled out that megaphone.

“I believe we need more than talk and platitudes in this country,” he said. “I believe that we have to have action and that action has to be focused on dealing with race and racism and implicit bias. We have to be courageous and honest about the racism that exists in this country that could lead to such a senseless death at a time when we as a nation haven’t even healed from the deaths of Ahmaud (Arbery) and Breonna (Taylor), that we would be faced with a horrific killing of a man who begged for his life, who pleaded for his life.”

It’s time to address racism and implicit bias in education and its impact on black and brown students, Thurmond said. These students are often given an unequal and inadequate education, and are more likely to be suspended and pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system, he said. 

Monday he talked about how difficult it has been for him to watch the television images of Floyd’s death and to explain it to his children.

“It has been difficult for me as a parent raising children to know what to say, how to answer their questions when they ask me ‘Dad, why did this happen?’ I know I have to confront my own vulnerability when they ask can this happen to them. That I might not be able to keep them safe. All I can do is talk to them about how they might carry themselves if ever confronted. About actions that they might take that might make a difference in their well-being.”

Thurmond said the conversation about race will begin with his staff at the California Department of Education, including discussions about the emotional trauma the killing has caused. The department will also provide more training about implicit bias, he said.

“I think for too long we have talked about race, but have not really talked about race,” Thurmond said. “We must not let this moment go unnoticed.”

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  1. Vickie Burton 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    What happened when a student at one of your high schools was allowed to attack a female on school, after he was just allowed back from beating another student down? Administration not available, campus police not available, but the person was not helpful. Punishment was a joke for the young man; he was allowed.to stay on campus and make a joke of it. The victim was taken home because of threats of bodily harm (Aunt … Read More

    What happened when a student at one of your high schools was allowed to attack a female on school, after he was just allowed back from beating another student down? Administration not available, campus police not available, but the person was not helpful. Punishment was a joke for the young man; he was allowed.to stay on campus and make a joke of it. The victim was taken home because of threats of bodily harm (Aunt and cousin came up to campus to take care of things).

    School position: Nothing happened because she didn’t report it to campus security. But they walked to office where it was safe and reported it.

  2. Jonelle Kanavel 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have been a teacher in California for 35 years. Most of that time was at a rural school. These programs are needed. I’m proud to teach under your leadership. Thank you!

  3. Philip Stanchfield 1 month ago1 month ago

    Mr. Thurmond, thank you!! You said something that I totally agree with! I support you 100%.

  4. Jennifer Bestor 1 month ago1 month ago

    Actions, rather than words? Will Superintendent Thurmond use his megaphone at the oh-so-boring Budget Subcommittee #6 (Budget Process Oversight and Program Evaluation) hearing on Thursday? Will he shout, "NO!" to the five counties that have pilfered $350,000,000 out of the Prop 98 Guarantee – and believe they have the right to keep doing so – using the stratagems of property tax mechanics? California's property tax allocation system quietly moves money out of the hands … Read More

    Actions, rather than words? Will Superintendent Thurmond use his megaphone at the oh-so-boring Budget Subcommittee #6 (Budget Process Oversight and Program Evaluation) hearing on Thursday? Will he shout, “NO!” to the five counties that have pilfered $350,000,000 out of the Prop 98 Guarantee – and believe they have the right to keep doing so – using the stratagems of property tax mechanics?

    California’s property tax allocation system quietly moves money out of the hands of its poorest districts, leaving them heavily dependent on the vicissitudes of the General Fund. It does so because the entire political establishment likes talking about inequity, not doing anything about it.

    Trick #1 is pretending that each county’s Educational Revenue Education Fund (ERAF) really belongs to cities, special districts and county governments. What about Educational Revenue don’t these local officials understand? Simple: why education never fights for that money. Why no one important ever realizes it was meant to be there or notices when it’s gone.

    Generally, the five wealthiest counties only repurpose money meant for their poorest districts — Ravenswood, Jefferson in Daly City, Novato, Gilroy, East Side Union in San Jose. Why? Because they can. Every legislator turned a deaf ear last year when Educate Our State campaigned for a regional cost supplement for the poorest districts in the richest counties — funded out of existing property tax. Talk about implicit bias — if you’re a black kid in a white county, your needs don’t count — we’ll just keep commandeering ‘educational’ funding to build police departments to control you.

    Now it seems the LAO has caught them going big time — sucking out another $350 million on top of the $500 million (yes, half a billion) they were already getting.

    Oh, hey, $350 million is just $50 a student. Just a bit more than the $100 million being taken from county offices of education to pay county courts for the state’s share of trial costs. And who wants to look closely at the $9.4 billion ($1500 per child) being taken to pay the state’s vehicle license obligation to municipalities?

    I am simply exhausted by the way that the entire education community talks about inequity – but won’t raise open a spreadsheet to do something about it. Meanwhile, the city councils, county supervisors and special district trustees have been prepaying their pension obligations, building their rainy-day funds and talking the same talk about racial equity.

  5. terri bennett 1 month ago1 month ago

    I believe as per Dr Baden, who did the independent autopsy and stated he believed that George Floyd died within 5 minutes. Also Geraldo Rivera said the cop had 5 minutes to decide whether or not to let George free and did not, therefore it is premeditated murder. But in all fairness criminal acts like passing counterfeit money should also be addressed along with drug usage. Again, the punishment did not fit the crime

  6. Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    Tony Thurmond and the rest of the illustrious educational leadership in California demonstrate their mastery of Kabuki Theater to address our current racial crisis. All show and no go. The leadership provides a plethora of platitudes and promises of action. There is a dearth of real significant concrete actions to address blatant racism within the K-12 Education system. It would be so refreshing for Thurmond to tell us that he will work with the State … Read More

    Tony Thurmond and the rest of the illustrious educational leadership in California demonstrate their mastery of Kabuki Theater to address our current racial crisis. All show and no go.

    The leadership provides a plethora of platitudes and promises of action. There is a dearth of real significant concrete actions to address blatant racism within the K-12 Education system.

    It would be so refreshing for Thurmond to tell us that he will work with the State Legislature to amplify the State Board of Education to include diverse student members who would have both voting and veto power over proposed policies.

    To his credit, Thurmond has taken steps to provide technology and broadband internet students to a small sliver of students of color. He needs to do much more though given the fact that education has moved online. One in five students of color in California doesn’t have access to technology or broadband. It will require a massive expenditure of money to make this happen. Asking corporations to solve this problem is not sufficient. Tony needs to take action to fund this initiative on his own.

    Kyla Johnson-Trammell could immediately order the end of police presence in schools as advocated by the courageous Black Organizing Project.

    Superintendents across the state could immediately assign veteran and qualified teachers currently working in White enclaves to now work in schools predominantly students of color.

    While Thurmond has advocated for changes in school district suspensions policy, he needs to do more. Thurmond should mandate that the malpractice of suspensions that disproportionately affect students of color be ended immediately in all school districts.

    Thurmond could end the bureaucratic fluff accountability that pretends to hold school districts accountable for their LCAPs to a monitoring and accountability system with teeth that ensures that school districts really improve professional practices and curriculum that supports all students, including students of color, within their system.

    Thurmond could terminate the endless diversions of educational fads that beset the system including social-emotional learning and refocus on the real mission of schools which is academic and civic achievement for which the system is currently failing all students but especially students of color.

    Thurmond could demand that all elementary school districts implement scientific approaches to teaching reading so that all students can read by the end of third grade and not the current 50%.

    Thurmond could use his influence to transform the woeful colleges of education so that the system will be able to ensure quality teachers for all students.

    It is time to end the flowery language and the inability to understand the situation.

    It is time to take action.

    The current crop of schmoozer educational leaders in California knows where their bread is buttered. They will not do much to upset the current zeitgeist of white entitlement. They will not take the significant actions to end racism within the K-12 system. That is clear. They will advocate for better racial understanding among the adults and generate endless heartfelt platitudes. So impotent.

    It will be up to the students to rise up and demand a full on transformation of the racist K-12 education system in California.

    Si se puede.

  7. Lizann Keyes 1 month ago1 month ago

    I am a retired high school teacher in Santa Cruz and member of our local NAACP. I am putting together anti-racism resources for teachers, parents, community members. Will you provide the resources that you recommend?

  8. Teresa Cowan-Fayter 1 month ago1 month ago

    As an African-American female teacher, how can I raise awareness and bring about change in a school district that refuses to acknowledge the racial tension within the district, when the topic is suggested?