As the region braces for the grand jury decision in the Ferguson investigation, some area school district superintendents are hoping they can sway when that decision is announced.
Seven superintendents signed a letter to Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, asking that any decision be announced after 5 p.m. on weekdays or on a weekend. Or better yet, they say, a Sunday. They suggested Sunday as good timing for both authorities and schools.
The letter, sent last week, was signed by superintendents of Riverview Gardens, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Jennings, Kirkwood, Mehlville and Normandy school districts.
A St. Louis County grand jury in Clayton has been hearing evidence since August in the Ferguson case. Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in a confrontation on Aug. 9. The death of Brown, 18, on Canfield Drive triggered rioting and protests, and focused national attention on minority interactions with police in the St. Louis region.
The region is on edge again that more rioting will follow if the grand jury decides not to indict Wilson on any charges.
The school superintendents worry that an announcement could spark demonstrations, road closures and violence. And if that announcement comes during a school day, they worry that school kids will be caught in the middle while walking home or delayed for hours on buses unable to make their stops.
"Information released during the school day has the potential to greatly affect school district operations and we implore you to refrain from making a grand jury announcement until such time as we can provide safe passage home for all students," the letter says.
It's not clear what McCulloch thinks of the suggestion. He hasn't tipped his hand on how such an announcement will be handled. His spokesman, Ed Magee, said no decision has been made about what date or day of the week they would make the announcement. He said the office is considering the request by school officials.
Melanie Powell-Robinson, executive director of communications for the Riverview Gardens School District, said the district's superintendent, Scott Spurgeon, had talked with Magee about his concerns before the letter was drafted. She said school officials have been pondering different scenarios, based largely on what they saw happen in the two weeks after the fatal shooting of Brown. Bus routes were limited because of crowds and road closures.
The city of Ferguson is served by the Riverview Gardens, Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood districts. The Normandy and Jennings district are nearby, and Brown attended high school at Normandy. And the Kirkwood and Mehlville districts are where some Riverview Gardens transfer students go.
The Riverview Gardens district includes the Canfield Green apartments where the shooting happened.
"Assuming you have a very young child who rides a bus and the bus can't even get close to the bus stop, what then do you do?" Powell-Robinson said. "We recognize that there were transportation issues that were very unique to school districts and that may not have been something the prosecuting attorney was thinking about."
Hazelwood School District's superintendent, Grayling Tobias, said many of his district's students walk to school. "If there is some civil unrest on the eastern side of our district, many of the students will be affected," he said. Hazelwood East High School and Hazelwood East Middle School are close to West Florissant Avenue, the scene of much of the earlier unrest.
Tobias said he hoped the superintendents' request would make an impact on the prosecutor. "If there's any flexibility (about timing), we would really appreciate it," he said.
Powell-Robinson said there are so many unknowns: how many people will congregate on the day of the announcement, where and when, and what routes might be affected.
"We're looking at all of the routes to and from school, whether it's parent pickup, buses, walkers, anything that is going to make that route from home a challenge," she said. "We want the students to be safely all the way home because there is no good time, not 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 11. Anytime during a school day is not a good time" for such an announcement.
In the weeks after the shooting, when protests and unrest were almost a nightly occurrence, the district evaluated things daily. They adjusted bus routes and changed some stops. A team drove those routes at 3 a.m. and monitored the routes every hour. Powell-Robinson said the district's security and safety director kept in contact with police to know about road closures and other challenges.
Officer Brian Schellman of the St. Louis County Police Department said his agency has no preference about what day of the week the decision is announced. "We will be prepared regardless," he said in an email response to the Post-Dispatch.
A Missouri Department of Public Safety spokesman couldn't be reached to discuss the Highway Patrol's thinking on the issue.
Magee, the spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said Tuesday that the office is in discussions with law enforcement officials about the timing of the announcement.