It was a few weeks after his death in July 2016 when Sakki Selznick learned that her daughter had been giving imaginary high-fives to Philando Castile.
Castile ― or Mr. Phil, as students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School would call him ― often greeted students with high-fives while they waited on line to get breakfast in the cafeteria. Now that Mr. Phil was gone, Selznick’s young daughter worried she’d never get one of his famous high-fives again. One evening, she explained, she was thinking about it and she’d started high-fiving the air, hoping Mr. Phil would respond somehow.
A magical high-five didn’t arrive. Through tears, Selznick explained to her daughter that she would not be getting one.
Jeronimo Yanez, at the time a St. Anthony police officer, shot and killed Castile last summer during a traffic stop. Castile, 32, left behind not only a girlfriend and her daughter, a mother and a family, colleagues and friends, but also 395 adoring students at the Saint Paul, Minnesota, elementary school where he worked.
The students have spent the past year mourning Castile, a loss that was felt anew last week with the news that Yanez had been acquitted of any wrongdoing.
Now that Castile’s killer has been found not guilty, the young children are grappling with another uncomfortable truth: The justice system doesn’t always deliver justice.
In a country where many schools are segregated by race and class, J.J. Hill is a small bastion of diversity, a Montessori school that draws from surrounding progressive neighborhoods. About 47 percent of the students are Asian, black or Hispanic, with a number of Somalian and Hmong immigrants. The rest of the students are white. For the most part, everyone gets along, parents say. The fact that this harmonious racial coexistence does not extend beyond the school’s four walls is a reality students had to confront when a cop killed their nutrition services supervisor last summer.
For some white families, it was surprising that an incident of stark police brutality could happen to someone in their circle. The shock mobilized them to action via protests and petitions. For some black families, the reality of police violence was something for which they had long prepared their children.
But the fact that it happened to Mr. Phil ― a man whom parents describe as exceedingly gentle and unfailingly kind, a man who did everything “right” ― was something no one could have prepared for.
Selznick is white, but used to live in an all-black neighborhood in Los Angeles. She says she isn’t naive about the harsh facts of police brutality. Still, when a jury found Yanez not guilty of second-degree manslaughter last week, she felt like she had been tricked into the idea that there would be some sense of justice. Earlier reports of a deadlocked jury had given her hope. “I got snookered,” she said.
When Selznick’s 10-year-old daughter learned of the verdict, she seemed overwhelmed. She said she could no longer remember Mr. Phil’s face. Selznick’s 16-year-old son, who also knew Castile, almost put a hole through the wall in anger.
“They’re right at the age where they believe there will be social justice,” Selznick said. “That’s a lie.”
Zuki Ellis’ son, entering fourth grade, isn’t likely to forget about Castile’s death any time soon. Ellis is black. She’s never tried to conceal from her son the realities of racism or police brutality. But this was the first time anything had happened to someone so close.
“He has the same question a lot of us have: How does something so awful happen and no one is accountable for that?” Ellis said. “How do you kill Mr. Phil and nothing happens?”
“They’re right at the age where they believe there will be social justice. That’s a lie.”
This year, when kids at J.J. Hill had to face school without Mr. Phil, regardless of their race, some students emerged from the experience as changed individuals.
Tony Fragnito, a small business owner who is involved in local politics, says his two boys were noticeably different. They were more somber and had less energy when they got home from school. Then, in November, the election happened, building on the trauma of Castile’s death. After Donald Trump won, Fragnito’s younger son packed a suitcase and said he was moving to Canada with his Somali friends from school because “it’s not safe for them anymore.”
Andrew Karre, a children’s book editor, recalled that when his 9-year-old son found out about Castile’s death, he asked a simple but difficult-to-answer question: “Why was the police officer scared?” Karre’s son followed Yanez’s trial on public radio. When the verdict was announced, the family headed down to the Capitol to protest. Given the facts of the case, Karre said, his son was troubled by the outcome.
John Horton, a teacher at J.J. Hill who also has two kids enrolled, said Castile’s death would often come up in class. The children drew connections to Castile when learning about civil rights issues. They tried to make sense of Castile’s death in relation to a larger context of injustice. But for many, he said, it still seemed senseless.
“I think a lot of the adults are still trying to work through it, and the kids see this,” Horton said. “They see the instability and the not understanding from the adult side.”
The school has mostly dealt with the grief head-on. Teachers got special training, and counselors were available for therapy throughout the year. A handful of teachers sported pins with Castile’s face on them. There is a bench in his honor, and a tree in his name.
But some parents are still struggling to provide answers to questions they can’t figure out themselves.
“It has been a hard year,” Ellis said. “I don’t imagine the next year will be easier.”