A St. Louis County, Mo., grand jury said there was not enough evidence to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, law enforcement officials announced Monday night.
Bracing for demonstrations and protests in the wake of the grand jury’s decision, St. Louis-area school districts canceled classes and after-school activities on Monday hoping to shield thousands of schoolchildren from the kind of widespread unrest—some of it violent—in the days after Brown was shot and killed by Wilson, a white police officer.
School districts in Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Riverview Gardens, Normandy, and St. Louis city canceled classes on Tuesday. Riverview Gardens and Ferguson-Florissant cited students’ safety and “anticipated increase in traffic and possible demonstration” as a result of the grand jury decision in opting to close district schools.
With anxiety and tension rising last week, officials in the Jennings district decided on Friday to close schools for the entire week.
In a Monday evening press conference, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, said the 12-member grand jury, which had been meeting since Aug. 20, had declined to bring criminal charges against Wilson.
McCulloch said that the grand jury considered five indictment options, ranging from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, and in the end decided that there was not enough evidence to support an indictment against the officer.
Many were bracing for widespread protest if the grand jury did not indict Wilson. Brown’s family has called for calm. So has President Barack Obama, who on Friday asked to “keep protests peaceful.” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last week also declared a state of emergency. And the police and a group of protestors had agreed to some “rules of engagement” in an effort to keep the peace.
On Monday, Nixon said the National Guard had been deployed, but in a “supporting role.”
Nixon and St. Louis-area officials, including Mayor Francis G. Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley, spoke at a press conference before the grand jury’s decision was announced. The governor urged “peace, respect, and restraint.”
“Our shared hope and expectation is that regardless of the decision, people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect and restraint,” Nixon said.
The governor said law enforcement agencies were intent on protecting “lives, property and speech,” but he and the other officials at the press conference also made it clear that violence will not be tolerated.
“We may allow demonstrators to slow down traffic but we will not allow them to hurt anyone or damage any property,” Mayor Slay said.
Dooley urged everyone to think with their heads and not their emotions.
“I do not want people in this community to think they have to barricade their doors and take up arms. We are not that kind of community,” Dooley said.
“This is not the time to turn on each other,” he said. “It’s the time to turn to each other. We are one community.”
The Justice Department’s civil rights division is also conducting a probe on whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights, but many media outlets have reported that Wilson is unlikely to face federal charges.
The August shooting set off a firestorm of protests in and around Ferguson, a small city of about 21,000 people, and catapulted this town into the national headlines. Some of the protests turned violent and were met with an aggressive militarized police response that spurred a deeper national conversation about race, police practices, and the use of surplus military equipment by local police departments and even school districts.
School districts in and near Ferguson forced to shut for their doors for days, and the Ferguson-Florissant district did not open for nearly two weeks.
School officials started planning their response to the grand jury decision early in the school year. In October and early November, many of them asked parents to update their emergency contact information and sent letters to parents to let them know how the districts planned to handle the announcement. The superintendents also asked McCulloch to release the verdict on a weekend or after school hours on a weekday.
Earlier this month, Grayling Tobias, the superintendent of Hazelwood School District, wrote on the district’s website that the prosecuting attorney’s office would give the superintendents 24-hour notice if a decision was reached on a weekend and three hours notice if that decision was reached on a weekday.
Yet, when word started leaking out early Monday afternoon that the grand jury had come to a decision, district officials in Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant said they had not received any notification from the office.
The districts started canceling afternoon activities, but as the day progressed many made the decision to close on Tuesday.
University City canceled after-school activities on Monday, but had made no decision about Tuesday.
St. Louis Public Schools acknowledged that while the grand jury’s decision was unknown, it will no doubt unleash a “wide range of emotions and reactions by students, staff and the community.”
The district had not made a decision on closure by Monday evening, but said that it was reviewing its emergency procedures and safety response plan and will take steps necessary to ensure students’ safety.
“History is unfolding before our eyes and as educators we will keep in mind that our primary focus throughout these events must be teaching and learning,” Superintendent Kelvin R. Adams wrote in a post on the district’s website. “There will be many different opinions about the grand jury decision and it is imperative that we remain professional and respectful at all times. Our students and families are counting on us to provide direction and leadership.”
The school districts have several factors to weigh when making decisions about closing schools, including how many who rely on free- and reduced-price meals will be fed.
Ferguson-Florissant, for example, partnered with seven local churches, which will provide meals—including free breakfast and lunch—educational opportunities and counseling for students, in the event that the district has to shut schools as a result of unrest.
In Normandy, parents were given emergency packages with a list of food pantries and other places that may be able to provide them with hot meals and provisions when schools are closed.
Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson made the decision to close school Monday and Tuesday and extend the holiday week. The district made a commitment to open some schools to provide meals for students and has set up a dedicated telephone line that parents and students can call to access counselors and social workers.
Jana Shortt, the spokeswoman for Ferguson-Florissant, said with all of the uncertainty and tension in the community over the last few months, the schools have been a valuable respite for students.
“Our entire community is affected, but we also know that the routine and normalcy of schools have been important for kids, especially young children,” Shortt said.
“We try to maintain that as much as possible, and for the older students, we’ve tried to facilitate good dialogue on those issues.”
Photos (From Top):
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury’s decision on Monday evening not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.—Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Protesters listen to the announcement Monday night in Ferguson, Mo., that a grand jury did not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager. Brown’s fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb.—Charlie Riedel)/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.