School Climate & Safety

Ferguson-Area Schools Face ‘Balancing Act’ Amid Unrest

By Denisa R. Superville — August 22, 2014 9 min read
In this photo taken with a long exposure, protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo.
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Schools in the Ferguson, Mo., area are walking a tightrope between returning to the routine of a normal year and acknowledging the street protests and larger debate about race and law enforcement sparked by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

Next week is expected to be the first full week of classes for nearly all public school students in the area since a state of unrest complicated the start of the academic year for several districts.

Schools in and near the small city in St. Louis County have scrambled to make up for missed class time, address students’ anxieties over violent images they had seen on TV—or on their streets—and provide lunches to the many students who qualify for subsidized meals.

In the 11,200-student Ferguson-Florissant school system, which is scheduled to start the new year on Monday, after thrice postponing it, teachers posted a “Teachers Here to Teach” sign outside the local library this week and, along with volunteers, held sessions inside on things children otherwise would be doing in school—reading, writing, math, and art.

In the 2,500-student Jennings district, which borders Ferguson, more than 150 teachers spent Tuesday of this week cleaning the streets, where they picked up discarded bottles, cans, and even tear-gas canisters. Officials of the Ferguson-Florissant and Jennings districts opened some buildings this week, though classes had been canceled, so that parents could pick up packed lunches for their children. And in the Riverview Gardens system, which was closed Monday and Tuesday, officials dispatched a refrigerated food truck to four locations so adults and children could pick up meals.

In the midst of all of this, school leaders were wrestling with the best way to approach what has turned into a national conversation about race, class, and justice in which President Barack Obama, commentators, and ordinary citizens have become involved.

“It’s a balancing act. That’s probably the best way I can express it,” said Grayling Tobias, the superintendent of Missouri’s 18,000-student Hazelwood district, near Florissant but away from the immediate protests, which kept its doors open throughout the protests.

“It’s a balancing act between focusing on teaching and learning, and focusing on the current events that are happening in the city of Ferguson,” he continued. “Our students’ well-being and health and emotional state [are] primary, and our staff’s health, safety, and well-being” are also high priorities.

Mental-Health Services

The tense situation in Ferguson—a city of about 21,000 where 67 percent of the population is black—was sparked by the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old graduate of a public high school in Normandy, Mo. The circumstances surrounding his fatal shooting by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, remain in dispute.

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson visits the Ferguson Public Library and talks with area students.

In the days after Mr. Brown’s death, protestors thronged the streets demanding the officer’s arrest. Peaceful protests have turned into violent episodes involving some participants, while local police have drawn criticism for what many residents and outside observers see as a heavy-handed response. In addition to local authorities, the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation, and the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into possible civil rights violations.

Recognizing a need for mental-health services for students and teachers affected by those troubling events, the Missouri education department on Aug. 21 hosted a training session for educators in districts near Ferguson, including Hazelwood, Jennings, Normandy, Riverview Gardens, St. Louis, and University City, as well as Ferguson-Florissant.

The daylong session was intended to help all educators—from teachers to guidance counselors—identify trauma signs, provide immediate assistance to students who are in distress, and spot those who may need extensive help.

The gathering was also an opportunity for educators to discuss how the events had affected them, according to Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

In the immediate future, experts said, schools must address the emotional and mental-health needs of students who may have seen their own streets enveloped in billowing smoke as military-style vehicles rumbled through, whose family members may be law-enforcement officials working at the scene of the protests, or who may have known Michael Brown.

“The best thing that schools do is that we try to restore a sense of normalcy,” said Sharon F. Sevier, the chairwoman of the board of directors of the American School Counselor Association and a school counselor in the Rockwood school district in St. Louis County.

“School is the safe place,” Ms. Sevier said. “We have routines. We have expectations. All of those expectations, all of those routines are above board.”

She added: “Kids feel safe, generally, in schools, and so that’s what schools want to do. We want to get back to greeting the kids in the morning, to seeing them in the halls, to providing lunch for them, to teaching them.”

Adult Presence

With the near wall-to-wall media coverage of the events in Ferguson, it’s highly unlikely that area students are unaffected by or unaware of what’s happening, making the situation especially challenging for students and staff alike, said Melissa A. Reeves, an adjunct instructor of psychology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and a co-author of the National Association of School Psychologists’ prepare School Crisis Prevention and Intervention curriculum.

Experts recommend increasing adult presence on the first day of school after a traumatic incident. And they suggest that students should guide any discussion on the topic.

It’s better to let students talk about the situation if they want to, instead of holding a schoolwide discussion, Ms. Reeves said.

“Especially with the younger kids, you want to let their questions be the guide and address the questions if they are coming up,” she said. “But if they are not asking a lot of questions, then it’s just important to continue on with your typical school day and give them a sense of normalcy.”

The school district can provide a script to teachers to help guide such a conversation, in the event that students want to talk about the protests, she said.

Teachers, Ms. Reeves said, can start the “school day validating that this is a tough situation, and that there is a lot of emotion, but what’s important is that when you are in this building, that every single student is physically and psychologically safe.”

In the Ferguson-Florissant district, which has 33 counselors on staff, the school system plans to make use of an additional 24 counselors—provided by Great Circle, a St. Louis-based mental-health organization—on the first day of school.

Interim Superintendent Larry Larrew said that teachers and other educators will rely on the crisis training they received from the state this week.

Mr. Larrew said that he imagines the situation in Ferguson will require more extensive discussion on race and social justice—a conversation the district is already having and one that has been part of not just the city’s history, but also that of St. Louis County. Professional-development days will be used to develop strategies on delving into the issues of race and socioeconomics, he said.

“It’s absolutely a part of the conversation—age, race, the roles of authority—all of those are areas that schools can help with,” Mr. Larrew said. “And they need to help because part of our function is to help in the development of students to become the adults that will contribute to society.”

In the 2013-14 school year, African-Americans made up 80 percent of the student population in the Ferguson-Florissant district, while about 12 percent of the students were white.

Students Protest

The Riverview Gardens school district, which has about 5,000 students, includes the area at the center of the protests: Some of its students walk past the memorial site to Mr. Brown on their way to school. The district was able to hold classes throughout the first week of protests that followed the Aug. 9 shooting, but canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday of this week after weekend unrest.

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott D. Spurgeon said he was concerned about the students who walked to school and about the difficulty buses had in reaching others because of roadblocks.

His students have also been involved in the protests; some were tear-gassed while demonstrating, he said. They have also been helpful in working to quell the violence, he said. About 20 high school students met with representatives from the state attorney general’s office and the Missouri State Highway Patrol to offer suggestions on how authorities could restore order while allowing peaceful protestors to exercise their First Amendment rights, Mr. Spurgeon said.

The district used the days off this week to provide staff members with training and resources on how to respond to students who may need help. Security has been reallocated to schools near the scene of the protests. And the district also asked the highway patrol to be present during mornings and afternoons while students are on their way to and from school.

So far, though, students appear to be doing well, Mr. Spurgeon said Thursday.

“There has been very little effects that we have seen from kids so far,” Mr. Spurgeon said. “What I see is families and students that appear to be excited about coming back to school. That’s a tremendous improvement for us.”

“We’ve had a few students that needed some conversations, that wanted to talk about [it],” he added, “but for the most part, our kids and families appear to be happy to be returning to school.”

Community Service

In the nearby Jennings district, where 99 percent of students are African-American and most qualify for subsidized meals, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson and her staff used Tuesday to clean up the streets that have been littered by days of protests. The idea was to show students that they could help build their community through peaceful means. Next week, the district will hold a voter-registration drive at one of its high schools. Also, next Saturday the district plans to join with students from Washington University in St. Louis to paint murals as part of a community-building and beautification project.

Ms. Anderson said school staff members also held discussions this month with selected high school students on strengthening their communities and ways they could effect change through nonviolent means. For the most part, though, she said, the students who were part of the group were more excited about returning to school than with the events in Ferguson.

“As kids come back, we want to make sure that we are responsive—and also proactive,” she said. “The proactive piece is just empowering our staff with ways to facilitate dialogue about community-building.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Balancing Act’ For Mo. Schools Amid Unrest

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