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Hazelwood reverses controversial suspensions of student protesters

Hazelwood reverses controversial suspensions of student protesters

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The Hazelwood school district reversed on Thursday evening its controversial mass suspensions of student protesters after three days of bitter acrimony that pitted parents and students against the administration.

The announcement was made on the school district’s website, ending days of near-complete silence on the part of the school district about the controversy. The reversal came on the heels of a daylong effort in which a group of students and parents staked out the administrative offices demanding action.

The district’s statement said that new information gathered Thursday led to the change, namely that “employees of the District encouraged and may have manipulated students into the walkout, which resulted in disruption and created safety concerns.”

Diane Livingston, the teachers union president, was vexed by the accusation that teachers had a hand in the walkout.

“There was no manipulation,” Livingston said. “And I will stand by that.”

She said she believed the district was trying to blame teachers for a mistake it made.

The district’s announcement states that Hazelwood West Principal Dennis Newell made the decision to rescind the consequences for students.

“Therefore, underclassmen will be allowed to return to school tomorrow and resume regular activities,” the statement reads. “In addition, the 12 Hazelwood West seniors who were suspended earlier this week may return on Friday for rehearsal in preparation for their graduation. All students missing exams during their suspension will be permitted to make up the exams.”

Tammy Rooney began to cry when she heard the news read aloud from the district’s Facebook page at a meeting at AME Ward Chapel Church called in the wake of the suspensions.

“It’s been a tough two days,” Rooney said.

Rooney is the mother of a senior who was temporarily barred from participating in graduation on Saturday. Her son’s suit and her dress had already been purchased for the occasion.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing and they almost took it away from me,” she said of the opportunity to see her only child graduate from high school.

But the celebration at the meeting did not last long before the discussion turned to next steps to address long-standing grievances with the district over transparency and school policies on discipline.

The ACLU of Missouri, which took part in the meeting, lauded the district’s change of heart but condemned the penalties that were reversed.

“We are disturbed at the retaliatory and excessive punishment of students who were peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” the group said in a statement. “In the future, we hope that the school district encourages students to be engaged citizens in our democracy and fosters trust that educational institutions fully support free speech and well-thought-out civil disobedience.”

The group had said earlier in the day that it planned to file suit against the district on Friday if the decision to repeal the suspension was not made.

Advocates said they believed that added pressure to the district to reverse course.

Sophomore Ishmaiah Moore, who participated in the demonstrations, said the district’s move didn’t address all the issues that had been raised.

“I can’t help but to say the fight is not over,” Ishmaiah said.

She said students were concerned about the repercussions teachers might face as result of the protests.

Throughout the day Thursday it had appeared that the district would not budge on the matter.

About 50 people arrived early at the district’s administrative building Thursday morning demanding a meeting with Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart.

They were denied but did manage a sit-down with administrators in which parents said the district continued to stand by the suspensions.

Three parents, including Kayrisa Ezeufo who has two daughters who attend West, had an hourlong meeting at noon with Newell and Bruce Green, the assistant superintendent for high school education.

The parents said Green and Newell said the students were cursing and running during a student walkout at the school Monday in support of union teachers. That poor behavior was the district’s reason for the suspensions, Ezeufo said.

“We looked at them, we can’t even believe they were saying this,” Ezeufo said. She said she felt that the administrators listened to the parents but stood by the suspensions.

The district’s statement Thursday repeated the assertion that the student protests Monday, which were in support of the district’s union teachers, were not peaceful. “Students in the hallways and outside of the school walked, ran, and shouted chants using vulgarities and profanities. Approximately 200 students left their classrooms without permission.”

District officials had previously been unavailable to comment on the matter, fueling a growing anger among many community members seeking answers. Earlier in the week, a school board meeting was cut short before dozens of community members could comment on the issue.

The group that gathered through much of the day Thursday also included students and civil rights activists. Some of the students who were suspended Tuesday were holding signs for honks on the sidewalk, because they’re not allowed on district property.

Hazelwood West teachers collected more than $200 to provide pizza, bottled water, chips and other food for the dozens of students who gathered. Some teachers also wore black ribbon pins in solidarity with the students.

The suspensions, if they had been enforced, would have prevented seniors from participating in graduating ceremonies.

Some feared the penalties would also threaten the scholarships of those who plan to use an A+ Scholarship to receive two free years of community college. That concern was brought up by at least one Hazelwood West senior this week.

Among the eligibility requirements for the scholarship is maintaining a record of “good citizenship,” in addition to volunteer hours and grade requirements.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Higher Education said it’s “up to the high school to determine whether a suspension violates that record of good citizenship.”

But the district stated Thursday: “Even as these consequences were being considered, at no time were students’ college or athletic scholarships in jeopardy, such as A+ Scholarships.”

The statement also said “the Hazelwood School District respects students’ voices and the exercise of their First Amendment rights, but we do not condone disruptive behavior or the violation of District policies.” Specifically, the statement seeks to draw a distinction between prior student protests at Hazelwood — which did not result in discipline – and the one Monday.

“Comparisons to this walkout have been made to other walkouts in previous years and under different circumstances. Those walkouts were in fact, organized, authorized, and supervised by the District.”

In this case, the statement said, “students were not properly supervised while outside of the building, causing a liability to both the students and the District.”

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

It's time for a reset in Hazelwood in the aftermath of last week's student-protest upheaval. School district administrators held out an olive branch, reversing suspensions of more than 100 student protesters after three days of hostility among parents, students and community leaders against the administration. The district’s action offers a teachable moment that could help cool a long-simmering feud between administrators and the community.

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