In the University of Maryland law school course about Freddie Gray, it's not really about Freddie Gray.
The 25-year-old Baltimore man— and the unrest that followed his death in April — was the inspiration for the course. But students won't be focusing on the details of his case.
Rather, they'll explore the legal and social challenges that surrounded Gray's life and death, and continue to fuel the distrust between police and the community in many poor and minority neighborhoods — challenges of housing, policing, education, violence, unemployment and health care.
"This was a problem that predated Freddie Gray," professor Michael Greenberger told students during the first class Thursday. "Freddie Gray is the most solid evidence."
As the case against the six police officers charged in Gray's arrest and transport makes its way through the criminal justice system, many in the academic community are exploring it as a teachable moment.
Darien Ripple, manager of the experiential learning program at the University of Baltimore, has created a course this semester devoted to Gray: "Divided Baltimore: How Did We Get Here, Where Do We Go?"
Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg hosted a panel discussion this week featuring former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who was fired in July as violence spiked after the riots. And the Baltimore public school district is encouraging students to talk about Gray, the unrest, and the environment in which the events occurred.
Ripple said faculty have quickly grasped the value of an academic look into Gray's death, and the community's reaction to it.
During the unrest that followed Gray's death, he thought to himself: "OK, what do we do now?"
"Are we just going to talk about it until we forget about it? Or, let's try to figure out what's working and not working," Ripple said."
"The Freddie Gray incident was a flash point. but the real issues of Baltimore are a lot deeper and more complex than looking at one incident. We're trying to explore that realm."
Universities have long seized on current events — political movements, protests, wars, elections — to explore larger issues. Greenberger has constructed other of-the-moment classes, including one on issues raised by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's leak of classified information.
Greenberger said his new course, "Freddie Gray's Baltimore: Past, Present, and Moving Forward," offers law students a chance to see that their legal education is relevant outside the classroom. About 90 students have enrolled.
Greenberger said the use of a current case opens many doors. Instead of reading textbooks, students will read newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Instead of hearing from one instructor, they will be visited by different lecturers each week — including political figures such as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
"I think it's important for law students to see the law is alive and it has day-to-day impact," Greenberger said. "It makes law school interesting."
Gray died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson.
Many of Greenberger's students were affected. Third-year law student Alisha Duggal, a 25-year-old from Rockville, said students took their spring exams at home instead of coming to campus.
Duggal said she's eager to hear different perspectives on the case, and to learn how the events affected others.
"There's so many different angles to this story that most people don't even know," she said.
Classmate Jade McDuffie, 25, of Charleston, S.C., said she's heard many opinions on the Gray case, but is looking forward to hearing what scholars have to say. She's excited about the opportunity to "get expertise on why this is happening and how to prevent it from happening again."
Greenberger said he put together the course, which is open to law students and social work students, at the behest of law school Dean Donald Tobin.
The University of Baltimore course, which is open to the public and streamed online, also features guest speakers. Undergraduate and graduate students who are taking the course for credit break off into groups for discussions with faculty, and will do academic research on some of the topics discussed.
The university is promoting a #DividedBaltimore social media hashtag to facilitate online debates.
Batts sparked controversy at Mount St. Mary's on Wednesday when he said officers "took a knee" after the riots in April.
Mount St. Mary's President Simon Newman said the university has a responsibility to examine deaths in police custody and racism. He said the university plans further discussions and research this year on poverty, race, policing and social justice.
Baltimore City school officials also have tried to engage students in the issues surrounding Gray's death. Last weekend, about 100 high schoolers participated in a forum organized by the school system at Coppin State University, near the Mondawmin Mall transportation hub where teenagers clashed with police on the day of the riots.
School officials said they're encouraging teachers to give students the space to talk about the events of the spring and summer.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.