Hundreds of students at north St. Louis County high schools walked out of class on their first day back after the announcement that Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson would not face criminal charges.
They began early in the school day, with some students continuing to protest for four hours as they marched at least five miles to the Ferguson Police Department. The demonstrations were in solidarity with others being held across the country to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
With flashing lights, police slowly followed a group of a few hundred students from McCluer and McCluer North high schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District as they walked along West Florissant Avenue. About 150 to 200 students at the district’s other high school, McCluer South-Berkeley High, also held a demonstration, with students marching north along South Florissant Road.
The situation outside Hazelwood East High School was more turbulent. A dozen St. Louis County police cars blocked more than 100 students on Dunn Road from both sides, and some students gathered around vehicles and taunted police officers who stood outside their cars. They were outside for about an hour before they went back into their school. Police made no arrests.
The walkouts were organized through social media Monday and Tuesday. Ferguson-Florissant, like many other nearby school districts, had canceled classes Monday due to the weather, making Tuesday the first day of classes since the grand jury announcement.
“We are standing up for the black men,” said Darris Hodge, a junior at McCluer. “We want justice.”
The district sent buses to pick up student protesters and take them back to school.
“If you don’t want to get suspended, get on the bus,” said a woman in a car that pulled up next to the students.
At first, some students refused. Later, many boarded buses, while others continued to protest.
District officials said in a statement the demonstrations were peaceful and that the McCluer South-Berkeley students were accompanied by a principal before district buses returned them to school at 1 p.m.
In classrooms throughout north St. Louis County, teachers and counselors are trying to help students channel frustrations and emotions over the protests and last week’s violence in their communities.
Some of the students say it’s not enough.
Brandy Gioyard, a sophomore at McCluer North, said the demonstration was not just about Brown’s death, but “everything boiling over.”
“They’ve been trying to keep us quiet. This is our chance to do something,” she said. “It gives me confidence in our generation.” She walked with the group on West Florissant Avenue to the intersection with Chambers Road and then got on one of the buses headed back to school.
Nearby, in Jennings, about 30 students held a peaceful protest inside their school’s commons area by chanting for about 10 minutes.
About 70 students walked out Tuesday afternoon at Kirkwood High School. The protest lasted about 30 minutes, and administrators said students would not be disciplined.
On Monday, students at Clayton High staged a similar walkout as part of a national protest event.
Acting Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Larry Larrew sent a letter to parents saying he understands the students’ desire to speak out.
“However, students are not permitted to leave school grounds during the day,” he wrote. “Students need to understand that regardless of the situation or number of students involved, our district’s discipline code applies.”
School and district officials are evaluating the situation to determine any disciplinary actions to be taken, spokeswoman Jana Shortt said.
During the Hazelwood East demonstration, Aquetta Stewart pulled up to check on her sons, one of whom was with the group who walked out.
“I’m trying to make sure he’s not getting caught up in any violence. You can’t get anything done that way,” she said. “As long as they’re peaceful, I’m OK with it.”
The group of Ferguson-Florissant students dwindled on Tuesday afternoon the further they got away from their schools, but at least a dozen students walked to the Ferguson Police Department, their end point.
“I’m cold. My legs are killing me right now,” said Marcus Stewart, a sophomore at McCluer as he stood across from the police department. “But I’m happy. I feel kind of liberated, like I’m doing something.”
Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.