Hazelwood School district officials, teachers and students finally reached a settlement, with a little legal muscle from the ACLU of Missouri, after four days of contention over teachers’ contracts and the district’s move to punish students who walked out of class in support of the teachers.
The students, who staged a walkout on Monday, May 15 in support of their teachers’ demands for better contracts with the district, were suspended en masse – 105 students were suspended, 12 of them seniors who (according to district policy for suspended students) would not be permitted to participate in any school activity, including their graduation.
That, however, provided more fuel for the following two days of protest – as well as a steady supply of students who were free to protest because they were no longer obligated to be in class.
On Thursday, May 18, a few dozen students, parents and community activists gathered outside Hazelwood West High School and the Hazelwood administration building to protest the suspensions, while another group of non-suspended students staged a sit-in in the school’s lobby to request a meeting with the superintendent.
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).
When the students planned their original walkout, they did not believe that the punishment would be this harsh. “We looked at the rules and stuff, making sure that we wouldn’t break any rules,” said Zoë Wells, a junior at Hazelwood West.
On Sunday, May 14 and Monday, May 15, the district sent robo-call messages that encouraged parent to talk with their children about the importance of not cutting class or walking out and warned about the possible consequences students would face if they walked out.
A district statement, released May 16, 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 with Education Exchange Corps who 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.”
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.”
The district’s statement said the protests were “not peaceful” and marked with chants that included “vulgarities and profanities.”
Though all of the students’ suspensions resulted from the original walkout on May 15, their initial punishments varied.
“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 even mistakenly suspended who weren’t involved in the walkout, including one student who was in the hospital at the time, according to Wells.
Later on May 18, students moved away from the administration building to protest outside Hazelwood West High School, where they were joined by teachers who had gotten out of work. 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.
State Rep. Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, joined the ACLU of Missouri, Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) and Education Exchange Corps 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.”
Around 5:30 p.m. on May 18 – after a full day of protests and a meeting with MCU, students and ACLU lawyers, who had offered to take on the case – the district released a statement that all students’ punishments would be revoked, and the seniors would be permitted to walk at graduation. According to the district, “new information” rather than public and legal pressures led to the principal rescinding the suspensions.
‘It was us who started it’
The district also stated that it had “new information” that some district staff “encouraged and may have manipulated students into the walkout, which resulted in disruption and created safety concerns,” and were investigating.
Teachers and students disagreed.
Wells said the walkout was the students’ idea. “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?’” she said. “So we were like, ‘Let’s just do a walkout.’
Students Matthew Kenrick and Jonel Harris gave the same account. “It was us who started it,” Harris said.
Grover Smith, a drama teacher from Hazelwood West who showed up to support the students on May 18, said, “We didn’t do any planning. We didn’t encourage them or discourage them.”
Gross, who spent many hours with the students, said, “From my conversations with these kids and seeing them in action, these young leaders were not pressured or manipulated by anyone to go protest. They chose to stand up for their teachers because they loved them.”
“I think they [the school district] couldn’t make the statement that they were wrong, and accept ownership of it, so they placed the blame on someone else,” said Diane Livingston, president of the Hazelwood teachers’ union.
As for the teachers’ labor dispute with the district – the subject of the walkout in the first place – Livingston said they approved the tentative agreement that they previously voted down and will negotiate next year again, settling with the district adding more time to the work year and more restrictions on personal days.
“We’re protecting the students,” Livingston said. “Hopefully, going forward, the administration will understand they need to let people communicate with them.”
The ACLU of Missouri, which was preparing to sue the district if it did not revoke the punishments, congratulated the district for “reaching the right resolution,” but not without a parting rebuke.
“In the future,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Missouri, “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.”
Sophie Hurwitz is a St. Louis American editorial intern from John Burroughs School.