At noon on Thursday, May 18, a few dozen Hazelwood School District students, parents and community activists was gathered outside Hazelwood Central High School and the district administration building.
The students held signs that said things like “The Board should be suspended for walking out on us!” “Education cuts never heal” and “This is B.S.” (bullying students).
One boy was dressed in a Wildcat suit, which is the district mascot. “We take turns wearing the Wildcat,” he said.
Every few seconds, a car drove past and the driver honked in support of the students.
The protests started on Monday, May 15, when dozens of district high school students walked out of class to protest the school board’s refusal to negotiate with the teachers’ union for better wages. Over 200 students were given out-of-school suspensions the following day, which provided more fuel for the protest – as well as a steady supply of students who were free to protest because they were no longer obligated to be in class.
“Prior to the walkout, the situation at West was actually really nice. It wasn’t bad,” said Zoe Wells, a junior at Hazelwood West. “But afterwards, I heard from my friends who are still in school they’re still suspending people. I think they aren’t going to catch all of us that walked out, which I think was unfair.”
Her mother, who was there supporting her, added, ““I thought it was really harsh – five days’ suspension for them doing something that’s not against the school’s constitution, that’s not against the rulebook, that’s not against the code of conduct.”
When the students planned their original walkout, they did not believe that the punishment would be this harsh.
“The teachers said they were negotiating contracts, and then we were like, can you tell us more? And then we were like, how about we stand up for our teachers and support them,” said Wells. “So we were like, ‘Let’s just do a walkout.’ We looked at the rules and stuff, making sure that we wouldn’t break any rules.”
After that, the parents were called, with a recorded message that, according to Hazelwood School District, “reminded parents of the consequences that students would face for violating District policies.” The district statement also said that “students were disciplined according to the Student-Parent Handbook and Behavior Guide.”
The students, however, disagreed. Jonel Harris, a sophomore at Hazelwood West who was suspended on May 17, said, “In the handbook, it says we aren’t supposed to be suspended for disruptive behavior.”
Elad Gross, a lawyer who works with the advocacy group Education Exchange Corps and has been working with the Hazelwood students since a forum held on May 16, agreed.
“The kids had looked up the rules, they knew what the consequences are, and it was not an out-of-school suspension for five days,” Gross said. “And they were willing to take the in-school suspension or whatever it was going to be. They didn’t realize they weren’t going to be able to walk at their graduations.”
Gross added that this wave of suspensions was particularly unusual because the Hazelwood district has experienced other walkouts in recent years, and few or no students were suspended.
Kyleah Brady, another suspended student, agreed that what they were doing didn’t merit suspension. “When they told everyone that we were being safety hazards, we moved to the back,” she said. “We were being cooperative.”
Though all of the students’ suspensions resulted from the original walkout on May 15, their punishments varied.
“We’re noticing a pattern in that seniors and juniors were suspended for dangerous behavior. Me and a few other people were suspended for disruptive behavior,” said Ishmaiah Moore, a Hazelwood West sophomore. “And there were some students that were suspended for truancy, but they’ve recently gone back in and changed it to disruptive behavior.”
Some students were mistakenly suspended who weren’t involved in the walkout, including one student who was in the hospital at the time, according to Wells. There is also at least one senior, James “BJ” Croft, who was suspended on the day of the first walkout, and will be allowed to compete in the track sectionals meet this upcoming Saturday, but will be kept from walking at graduation like the other suspended seniors.
The students moved away from the administration building and Central High School to protest outside Hazelwood West High School later on May 18, where they were joined by teachers who had gotten out of work. Most of the teachers refused to speak on the record.
“We’re here to show our support,” said Grover Smith, the drama teacher from Hazelwood West. “We didn’t do any planning. We didn’t encourage them or discourage them.”
A whole bus full of Hazelwood kids drove by the protest. Most of the children on the bus screamed out the windows in support, which mingled with the cacophony of approving car horns and shouting protestors.
Sophomore Jonel Harris said a student group met with Assistant Superintendent Bruce Green, “but it hasn’t gone very well.” He said the ACLU – which has threatened to sue the district over the suspension – is trying to negotiate with the district so that seniors walk at the end of the summer and us do make-up finals, “but it hasn’t been changed yet. We’re still where the seniors can’t walk, and we can’t take our finals.”
State Rep. Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, joined Metropolitan Congregations United and the ACLU in supporting the student’s right to protest.
“I stand in full support of the many students who exercised their First Amendment right to free speech,” she said in a statement, “and believe they have the right to participate in the ceremony that reflects the hard work and dedication they have put into their educational advancement.”
Sophie Hurwitz is a St. Louis American editorial intern from John Burroughs School.