Ferguson Protestor
A demonstrator in St. Louis wears tape over her mouth March 14, 2015, during a silent protest of the slaying last summer of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Area school districts have embraced classroom discussions about the associated civil unrest among students and staff. Reuters/Jim Young

ST. LOUIS -- Even if he had wanted to go, Kyle Ingram was forbidden by his mother from attending the demonstrations that erupted last year in Ferguson, Missouri, a few miles from their home in Riverview Gardens. “She said they would shoot you and use the tear gas,” Ingram remembered of his mom’s warning about the volatile protests that came after the death of an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer last summer.

Ingram’s mother went grocery shopping and “bought all the food she could, so that we wouldn’t have to leave the house,” he said. Ingram -- who, like Micheal Brown at the time he was shot to death, is 18 and African-American -- said he feared he would be arrested should he join the demonstrations. “I felt like the police were just arresting everybody,” he said, sharing a widely held concern. “That’s why I don’t go outside anymore. If I’m going outside, it’ll probably be on the porch and then back in the house.”

Two days after the shooting, Ingram and thousands of students throughout northern St. Louis County were back in classrooms. Although the protests were becoming increasingly violent and affecting the safety of friends and families, several students at different schools said they were surprised to find their teachers initially wanted no class discussion of the unfolding events.

“The black teachers, they didn’t want us to talk about it because they wanted us to respect the white teachers” who might have been uncomfortable facilitating discussions, said Tatiyana Nunn, a 17-year-old junior attending Riverview Gardens High School, located in the district where Brown was shot. “[White teachers] didn’t really understand why we were so angry about it.”

A New Situation For Students

Nunn, her peers and students throughout the area eventually did get plenty of opportunity to add their voices to a national debate about African-Americans’ relationship with police and institutionalized racism. Teachers, counselors and administrators here said they quickly prepared lessons and tailored services that encouraged healthy discussion of events, especially after a grand jury decided not to criminally charge former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson a few months after Brown’s death. The grand-jury decision intensified the civil unrest locally and prompted area districts to suspend classes for as long as a week.

Now, nearly eight months since the initial unrest, school officials are balancing a desire to reap the benefits of the discussions and counseling with a reality that there are too few educational hours available to divert attention to abstract discussions of Ferguson unrest. Many of the students in the Ferguson area’s overwhelmingly African-American school districts come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and a large proportion of them are not proficient in reading, math or science. Long before Brown’s death, some districts here lost state accreditation because of subpar attendance rates and poor proficiency scores, among other issues.

However, administrators say the way they’ve handled the events since Brown’s death -- even as they push ahead on the regular business of education -- will have a positive lasting impact on the students and staff. The students say they are inspired to be more civically engaged and appreciate the effort their teachers put forth.

“For our young people, this is a situation they have never really dealt with,” said Darius Kirk, principal of Riverview Gardens High School. “They had not seen civil unrest like this before, so it really caused us to re-examine the ways in which we empower our students from all levels.” Some of those methods would be reinforced in part by outside organizations, which supported the district’s goal of translating the historic, tragic events into educational opportunities.

Acceptance -- And Education

Brown met his demise on Canfield Drive in Ferguson Saturday, Aug. 9. Days earlier, the 18-year-old graduated from Normandy High School, in a nearby district. A week of demonstrations and the growing national media presence in the area quickly took a toll on students, who returned to school on the Monday that followed Brown’s death. When the grand-jury decision was announced Nov. 24, sparking arson and violent clashes in Ferguson, it was clear students would need help unpacking their emotions.

Administrators said it was common to see students come in and put their heads down on their desk from exhaustion. Some had been out at protests with friends or relatives late into the night. Others who weren’t able to attend the rallies complained of not being able to sleep because of tear gas seeping into their homes. Several students also said they were uncomfortable with having to walk past dozens of news trucks and reporters on the way to school.

Just about every northern St. Louis County school district leaned on its counseling staff for psychological support of students and other staff. Sharon F. Sevier, chair of the American School Counselors Association, said counseling services are key in any situation where students have experienced trauma, especially when it is not school-related.

“The counselor is the person who kids can come to and share their most intimate thoughts,” said Sevier, who is a counselor at Lafayette High School in western St. Louis County. “In cases like this, we have to be ready to accept whatever their thoughts are and to lead them back to education. When they go home knowing there’s a place where they can come for a sense of normalcy, that’s critical.”

Anger And The Classroom

If school officials were caught off guard by the timing of the civil unrest and the beginning of school in August, they were well-prepared to facilitate students’ concerns by the time winter break ended in January. Before classes resumed, almost 2,000 Ferguson-Florissant School District employees, including bus drivers, custodians and other support staff, underwent training to recognize the range of responses to the civil unrest that might be displayed by students, said Jana Shortt, a district representative.

Michelle Grigsby, a social-studies teacher from McCluer South-Berkeley High School in the Ferguson-Florissant district who attended such a training session, said she was concerned students were returning to school with adult emotions and teenage capacity to process them. “I didn’t want our kids to be very angry,” she said. “I was very concerned that they would have some type of post-traumatic stress, that they would be on edge. That’s something that you can’t have in the classroom while you’re trying to educate them.”

This month, the U.S. Justice Department released a report on its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department’s conduct, both in the shooting of Brown and in its policing of the community. While the Justice Department declined to pursue Wilson on federal civil-rights charges, it also produced a damning picture of how police officers and other Ferguson city officials targeted African-American residents with traffic stops, traffic tickets, court fees and jail time for unpaid fines. Several students said the report had not become a big topic among their peers, although they understood what the report’s findings meant.

Grigsby said she assigned writing exercises that asked students to choose a song that expressed their feelings about the civil unrest. The exercise’s purposes were twofold: It was cathartic for students, who liked the idea of describing a feeling through a soundtrack, and it helped meet a district language-arts requirement, she said.

‘Students Are Dealing With It Better

Once the international media had trained their spotlight on the Ferguson area, resources to help students cope with the civil unrest began pouring in from outside the area. For instance, students at Grigsby’s school and the two other district high schools left on a trip to Selma, Alabama, this week. They were going there to walk the historic 54 miles to Montgomery, mirroring the march 50 years ago that was the impetus for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The National Alliance of Faith and Justice paid travel and lodging expenses for the “walking classroom” experience, said Gwendolyn Diggs, the district’s chief learning officer, who also accompanied the students.

“I’m going to broadcast this whole trip to the school and to the world,” said Vaughn Ross, an 18-year-old senior at McCluer North High School who accompanied Grigsby and other students on the trip. As the city of Ferguson prepares to hold municipal elections, Ross and his travel companions said they realized the significance. “I know it’s going to have an impact on me,” he said.

Also this week, students from Howard University, located in Washington, were at Riverview Gardens High School leading a workshop during their so-called alternative spring break. They engaged a group of about 40 high-school students who were in the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, a pattern seen in U.S. schools where administrators suspend disadvantaged and disproportionately African-American students and turn them over to the criminal-justice system.

Melanie Powell-Robinson, a representative of the Riverview Gardens School District, said the outpouring of support from national organizations and student volunteers has allowed Ferguson-related programming to continue throughout the school year. The King Center, an Atlanta-based nonviolence museum and nonprofit charity run largely by Bernice A. King, the youngest daughter of civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., established a school chapter of nonviolence ambassadors at the district’s high school last fall. Powell-Robinson said King has visited the high school to teach support to the students.

Jada Goodman, a 16-year-old sophomore at Riverview Gardens High School, is one of the King Center’s Nonviolence 365 ambassadors. She, Nunn and Ingram said they used the training they received to help others deal with heightened emotions. “Some of us have had the conversation with other students outside of our group,” Goodman said. “We reached out to them to tell them how to deal with [their anger] and how to talk about it differently. I think students are dealing with it better and are opening up more.”