BRENTWOOD • Students from 14 high schools sat around tables discussing race issues at a student summit Thursday, when several from Ferguson’s McCluer High made a decision.
They wanted to join their table with that of Parkway North, a majority white school at least 20 minutes away from where Michael Brown, a black teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer in August.
“Let’s branch out,” said Kyahna Johnson, a McCluer junior whose life was affected by the street closures, the fires and the protests that followed the shooting. “Let’s see other views on it.”
For the next several hours, student leaders from the predominantly black high school and from the majority white one began to form friendships as they drew up solutions to problems that many adults avoid talking about: segregation, institutionalized racism, privilege and bias.
Inside the conference center at Brentwood School District’s central office, similar relationships were building among students at the other high schools.
Students from Francis Howell North in St. Charles County voluntarily joined tables with Confluence Prep Academy, a charter school in St. Louis. Students from Hazelwood East in north St. Louis County joined tables with Seckman High School in Imperial.
The Student Summit on Race focused on issues that have been part of life in area schools for generations. But Ferguson sparked an awareness in students about the way their peers separate themselves by race in the lunch room, and at sporting events and assemblies.
“What we should do is try to become more united,” said Christine Ibrahim, a freshman at Parkway North.
EducationPlus, an umbrella organization that represents school districts across the St. Louis region, organized the Student Summit on Race — one of several events intended to empower students to change their schools. The 150 students who attended are school leaders who were selected by teachers and principals. More schools wanted to participate than space allowed. Organizers chose the 14 schools based on demographics and geography. They selected Ritenour media students to document it.
The summit was a response to the unrest in Ferguson, which left many high school principals uncertain about how to create a productive outlet for students who wanted to speak out and discuss race in the classroom.
Some schools have integrated discussions on Ferguson and related issues into their lesson plans, while others have kept the topic at arm’s length.
“They were saying, ‘Can we discuss this or not?’” said Jim Walters, an administrator at Confluence Preparatory Academy who helped organize the summit. So EducationPlus invited the schools and turned much of the discussion over to the students. “This concept will grow because the interest was huge.”
Students came from as far south as Seckman in Jefferson County and as far north as Central and West high schools in Hazelwood. Students from charter schools and district schools from St. Louis were there, as well as from Francis Howell North in St. Charles County.
Students said they appreciated the geographic representation.
“My perception from North County is different than a white girl from West County,” said Royce Martin, a black freshman from Grand Center Arts Academy in St. Louis.
At a nearby table was Kennedy Wingbermuehle, a white junior from Seckman.
“My school is 98 percent white,” she said. When Ferguson erupted, it “shocked people,” she said. “They didn’t understand what was going on.”
At another table, students from University City High School touched on how minority students are affected when their white friends from elementary school transfer elsewhere after fifth grade, leaving the middle and high schools predominantly black.
“In middle school, you start to see how the world perceives you,” said Payton Bass, a freshman.
And at another table, Pattonville High School students brainstormed ways to integrate their student assemblies and school functions, where students self-segregate by race.
“That should be called out,” said Shaina Weaver, a senior.
McCluer and Parkway North students had heartfelt conversations on media bias and policing. Black students criticized protesters, who’ve spoken against shootings involving white police and black civilians, but not against shootings where both parties are black.
A recent report from a gun control group found that Missouri’s homicide rate among blacks was the highest in the nation in 2012.
“Why do we only get upset when a white kills a black?” asked Christian McClelland, a McCluer junior.
“They don’t care because they die,” said Khalil Joiner, also a junior at the school. “They just care if it’s a racist act.”
During the hours of discussions, the students from the 14 schools developed solutions that they presented. They decided to create sister school exchange programs that will involve shadowing students in the other buildings and perhaps holding joint events.
Students also came up with ideas for their own schools. Leaders from Pattonville High, for example, want to hold a summit with 100 students to talk about these very issues.
“From the outside, our school is a diverse one,” said Christi Hamil, a senior. “Inside, we tend to separate. We want to fix that separation and bring people together to create more diversity and unity.”
They will reconvene Feb. 25 to talk about how the exchanges are going and to further the discussion.
“I don’t think people realized these were issues before Ferguson,” said Brenna Goslin, a junior from Grand Center Arts.