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For universities, discussion and healing as well as marches

University students and faculty from around Baltimore are marching and protesting the death of Freddie Gray, but they’re also positioning themselves as healers and discussion leaders following this week’s riots.

Hundreds attended student-led protests demanding justice for Freddie Gray at the campuses of Johns Hopkins University and Towson University Wednesday before joining students from Goucher College, Maryland Institute College of Art and other schools for a peaceful march from Penn Station to City Hall, according to student news outlets.

But students and faculty have also recognized the need to talk, both among themselves and with members of the communities hurt most by the unrest.

“This is the responsibility of a university,” said Todd Kenreich, professor of secondary education at Towson. “To make sure sustained, informed conversations happen.”

To that end, Kenreich and a colleague held the first of two planned “teach-ins” at the university Thursday afternoon for any interested students, staff or faculty. Kenreich said he planned to begin with a discussion of the historical context of this week’s unrest, including the 1968 riots, as well as recent economic trends.

Then, students would be invited to share their “multiple perspectives” on the events, he said. Kenreich said he felt the student body’s general mood was one of cautious optimism since Monday, and that there was hope that events would lead to a broader understanding of issues facing the city.

A second “teach-in” is scheduled for Monday, Kenreich said.

Graduate students and faculty from the University of Maryland School of Social Work have grounded their response to the riots in the school’s existing partnerships and outreach efforts in West Baltimore, said Megan Meyer, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs.

That response has included sending crisis teams to lead group discussions in two combination elementary/middle schools and one high school “to help students process their feelings” in the wake of Monday’s violence as well as providing grief counseling at a community event in the Upton neighborhood, Meyer said.

The school of social work was committed not just to addressing the immediate need to help the community heal but also to be part of a broader movement for change developing in the city, Meyer said.

Thursday also saw the first of several planned forums on race in America hosted by Johns Hopkins University, an event that had been planned long before the death of Freddie Gray and postponed from earlier this week, which featured writer and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates.

At the beginning of the forum, university President Ronald J. Daniels said that the university’s role as that of “a critical forum” for the rigorous exploration of the social, economic and cultural issues that brought the city to this moment.

Many Hopkins students have felt a need to participate in the broader conversation about justice in the city following Gray’s death and the riots, but they are also facing their last week of classes and their final exams and assignments, said Terry Martinez, associate vice provost and dean of student life.

Some want to participate but don’t know what to do, so the university has been trying to offer students an outlet but also to allow them to define their own response, such as choosing to join a peaceful march, Martinez said.

For example, the administration organized discussions about Gray, the riots and the implications for the campus in student residence halls Tuesday evening, but had the student resident advisers lead the conversations, she said.

Students at Loyola University Maryland are also planning to lead a discussion for school community members Friday evening, an event which is also to include a vigil, said university spokesman Nick Alexopulos.

Loyola students also spent part of Tuesday helping clean up damage done to 12 businesses along York Road near the campus late Monday night, said Erin O’Keefe, director of the university’s York Road Initiative, which works with local businesses, schools and community associations in the area.

Students for Morgan State University have made trips into West Baltimore this week to help with cleanup efforts, said university spokesman Clinton R. Coleman.

Baltimore’s universities — not including their associated hospitals — are also major forces in the city’s economy, employing 9.4 percent of the city’s workforce, or about 28,400 people, according to the Baltimore Development Corporation.