Forty-five years ago, the identity of the Kent community was changed forever when Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesting students and passersby.
After four Kent State students were killed and nine were wounded, the events became known as May 4, branding the university and surrounding community for years to come.
May 4 in local schools
However, local children aren’t always educated about the events and their effects.
“Our teachers wish they could do more but because of what the standards require in terms of time, there’s only so much that we can do,” said Karen Rumley, Kent City Schools director of instructional program.
Rumley said some teachers do include the events in their lessons, but for the most part, it’s not a full unit because teachers need to cover specific lessons in order to do well on state tests, not leaving time for much else.
Furthermore, Kent City Schools’ local history unit is in the third grade, and Rumley said the events of May 4, 1970 are possibly too heavy for 8 and 9-year-olds to understand, prompting teachers’ discretion as to whether or not the material is taught.
The Ravenna School district also doesn’t have a formal unit teaching the events of May 4, said Beatrice Flarida, director of teaching and learning K-5 of the district.
Rumley also said the event is covered briefly by government teachers because it teaches civil disobedience and public discourse.
“Another one of our teachers does a photo analysis of the Mary Ann Vecchio picture,” Rumley said. “Once upon a time, there was a Violence in America course that they would really focus on (May 4) and take the kids to the memorial, but they don’t offer that anymore. Now there’s a pop culture class where May 4 is covered but it’s not very much.”
Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper said courses like Kent’s Violence in America are becoming more and more uncommon because students have to be taught such a large amount of material to score well on the Common Core tests, which determine teachers’ salaries and state and federal funding.
“It’s a shame because students can lose out of valuable lessons,” Cropper said. “It can really dial back the scope of what teachers can and cannot teach.”
Lessons to be learned
Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus of Kent State’s sociology department, said May 4 needs to be taught in schools due to its connections with First Amendment rights.
“I think that (the) National Guard took away freedom of speech that day,” Lewis said. “It was on a college campus, and they were agents of the State of Ohio who took freedom of speech away. And I think that’s essential to a healthy democracy so the Visitors Center is designed to help people visit the physical site of the shooting.”
Lewis was a faculty marshal on May 4, 1970, charged with keeping the students under control. He said he was standing 15 yards from Sandra Scheuer was shot.
“When the National Guard got up on the hill and turned right to fire, I saw the smoke coming out of the weapons and I had been in the Army and I knew they were real bullets so I dove for cover,” Lewis said. “I thought they were shooting at me.”
Lewis has since become a well-known scholar on the topic of May 4 and is a co-founder of the annual May 4 Vigil and March on the university’s campus as well as a proponent of the May 4 Visitors Center, located in Taylor Hall.
“On the Memorial, it says ‘inquire,’ ‘learn’ and ‘reflect’ and I think that’s what the Center’s about,” Lewis said. “Students come in and inquire and they learn about the various galleries and then reflect on the events and not just the students who died but also on the issue of freedom of speech.”
Lewis said a large range of people come into the center, but most are First-Year Experience students coming for class.
“I had one student come in, a young woman, who came up and thanked us for the visitor’s center because she thought the students shot the National Guard,” Lewis said. “That’s an extreme thing but it’s a whole category of people (who don’t know what happened that day).”
May 4 in pop cultures
Mike Markulis, a world history teacher at Kent Roosevelt High School, teaches the pop cultures course at the high school. He said he’s excited May 4 falls on a school day this year, allowing for greater context to the lesson.
“In pop cultures, we don’t spend an entire class period on it, but I usually ask them ‘What do you know about Kent State? What do you know about the day?’” Markulis said. “I like to go over a timeline of everything that happened because some students are like ‘Kids got shot and the National Guard was in’ and that’s all they know. And some know that buildings were burned down but they don’t really know the events leading up to it.”
Markulis said he utilizes a video made by a student teacher from years past with a photo montage and the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to help teach the lesson.
But he also noted how important it is for him to remain neutral during his teaching.
“I think one of the things I liked to teach the students is it’s a tragedy all the way around,” Markulis said. “You had growing angst about the war and the bombing. You had young very impressionable students. You had young national guardsmen. You had the animosity between the two sides because of the war.
“It wasn’t just the students — businesses were burned, the guard was here, there was a curfew. I try to make give them the big picture and let them make the decisions about whether it was a massacre or just a shooting.”
Contact Katie Nix at email@example.com.