UCF this week created a virtual forum for high school students from Orlando and Jennings and Ferguson, Mo., to talk about race, police practices and communities.

Their conversation touched on the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the role students can play in community healing.

“The Missouri students saw a lot of civil turmoil after the shooting of Mike Brown,” said Cynthia Schmidt, director of the Center for Law and Policy in the College of Health and Public Affairs, who envisioned the forum with center staff member Danielle Malcolm.

“We wanted to give students from our local community an opportunity to talk with them, share their own experiences and perhaps start an ongoing dialog,” she said.

Schmidt and Malcolm worked with Lisa Early from the city of Orlando to identify a student from Jones High School to be a student leader at the forum. Senior Withney Simon, who participates in the city’s Parramore Kidz Zone initiative, agreed to the role.

They worked with Robyne Stevenson, interim director of the college’s Doctoral Program in Public Affairs and a former University of Missouri–Kansas City faculty member, to identify a partner high school and student leader from the Ferguson area.

They found a partner in Jennings High School, which includes students from both Jennings and Ferguson. Trevor Gillespie, also a senior, agree to serve as his high school’s student leader.

A week before the forum, Stevenson and Airick West, a member of the Kansas City, Mo., school board, worked with a group of students from each high school to prepare questions to ask at the forum. They also coached the student leaders on how to lead the conversation.

On April 21 the two groups of students met through video conference technology over pizza compliments of the UCF center. After eating the student leaders took turns leading the conversation.

The Jones High School students wanted to know what keeps the Jennings High School students going and what they’re doing to uplift the community, Schmidt said. The Jennings students said their school raised money for businesses that burned down and that they want to help the community by leading by example.

The Jones students also asked the Jennings students how they would describe Mike Brown, who grew up in an impoverished area near Ferguson. According to Schmidt, one Jennings student who knew Mike Brown said, “He was a person trying to get out of here, just like we are.”

“The room was quiet for a bit after that answer,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also reported: “A Jennings student asked the Jones students: Who is to blame for the shootings: African Americans, the cops or the politicians?” A Jones student said, ‘The blame should be shared because sometimes the black community fails to accept responsibility for when their own is messing up, but sometimes there is racism by the police.’”

West participated in the forum using Google Hangouts technology. He asked all the students, “Whose job is it to start something? What are the next steps?”

According to Schmidt, two Jones students responded with, “We should get involved instead of letting older people be the voice” and “Be accountable, man up.” A Jennings student said, “We should build relationships instead of judging.”

Schmidt said the students from both high schools agreed to participate in a second virtual forum at the beginning of the next school year.

For further information, contact Cynthia.Schmidt@ucf.edu.