Amid the declaration of Missouri's state of emergency and activation of the National Guard, St. Louis-area schools have been quietly preparing to keep students safe in case of more riots in Ferguson. The grand jury's decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown is expected at any time, and the announcement could lead to schools' early dismissal or even cancellation.
Ferguson erupted in violent protests over police brutality and race relations in August after white officer Wilson killed black teen Brown. Rioters looted, vandalized and burned down local stores, and officers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
As jury deliberations draw to a close, the Riverview Gardens School District has requested "as much notification as humanly possible" before the decision is announced, executive director of communications Melanie Powell-Robinson told International Business Times. But how long the head start is depends on when the decision comes. The Hazelwood School District said it will be informed 24 hours before the decision is released to the media if it's announced on a weekend and three hours if it's during the week, according to a letter written by Superintendent Grayling Tobias. That way, schools can transport students home before streets potentially fill with protesters. Administrators in the Jennings School District, which doesn't offer bus service, will check to see whether kids are safe to walk in nearby neighborhoods before holding -- or canceling -- classes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
"We love our community and [it] is truly our hope that our community remains peaceful," Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson wrote in an email to IBTimes. "All of our schools have posted 'I love Jennings' signs to remind our community of the importance of uplifting and supporting our community regardless of the unrest in neighboring areas."
If students themselves want to protest the decision, they'll have to do so outside of school hours, Tobias said. Hazelwood respects students' First Amendment rights, but students participating in "disruptive behavior, protests, violence and/or walkouts" will be marked absent.
Students' not being physically in school will not exempt them from studying. Last weekend, Riverview Gardens asked all of its teachers to distribute packets containing two days' worth of homework, Powell-Robinson said, and they'll do the same this weekend. "It's an extension of the classroom ... so should we be out, we don't miss any opportunity," she said.
One of the biggest concerns for schools is not academics -- it's feeding their children. Two-thirds of the 12,000 students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District receive free or reduced-price lunch every day, according to U.S. News and World Report. It first arose as an issue in August, when Ferguson-Florissant pushed the start of classes back six days due to riots. "When we're closed, we always have to think about that ... children that are now missing meals that they rely upon," Jana Shortt, Ferguson-Florissant director of communications, told IBTimes.
If the grand jury decision sparks similar protests and school cancellations, seven Ferguson-Florissant churches will serve as home base for meals, makeshift classes and counseling, Shortt said. Other churches have partnered with Riverview Gardens to do the same. "Every day, we have new partnerships that are forming, and that provides us with more resources, more opportunities, more communication, more distribution lines," Powell-Robinson said. "We want that to continue until we see the end of this."