Student Voice

As high school Ferguson protests snowball, East students search for the story

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students at East High School review footage of Ferguson protests.

On Thursday morning, a group of students at East High School was trying to digest the story of a protest that had taken on a life of its own.

For the second day in a row, hundreds of Denver high schoolers had taken to the streets to protest police brutality and race-based inequity, spurred by a grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer who shot an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo.

Hundreds of East High School teens walked out of class in protest on Wednesday, and students at George Washington, Montbello, and Lincoln high schools followed suit on Thursday.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my four years here,” said East senior Azen Jaffe.

Jaffe and his classmates, part of a TV production class, had collected several hours of video of the protests at East. They scrolled through footage of students pouring down a grassy hill toward the capital building, of the organizers describing their causes and administrators responding, of students shouting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as they walked backward in front of a cop car.

They had already decided that they would use that footage to create a documentary about the protests.

“I think what we can add is the student voice,” said Collin Metscher, a senior.

But they had not yet agreed on what that voice should be.

Someone suggested a video on student activism. Another thought the girls who had organized the protests—who were, they agreed, awesome—deserved a profile. A thirdpotential angle: Talking to black students at East about their experiences with the police.

“In a place as big as East, it’s always hard to see the whole picture,” said junior Zach Morris.

The Denver students’ protests were just some of hundreds around the country tied to the grand jury’s decision, which has been seen as part of a broader pattern of discrimination. They also came just after a series of student-led protests against standardized tests and school curriculum in nearby Jeffco and Boulder.

“We wanted other students to be aware of the case,” said Ashley Davis, part of a group of students who organized the protest at East, told one of the video students in an interview Wednesday. She said the students passed out flyers and spoke about police brutality and its disproportionate affect on minorities.

The East protests were marked by several unexpected turns. The protest, which had been intended to stay at the school, had evolved into a march toward the capital. And during that march, a car driven by a person in medical crisis ran into and injured several police officers.

As of Thursday afternoon, no one had been injured in the next series of protests.

District officials framed the protests as learning experiences. “We appreciate the cooperation we have with the police department and the example our student leaders are setting on how important it is that these be thoughtful, respectful, peaceful expressions about issues they care about deeply,” said superintendent Tom Boasberg in a district press conference.

“It’s important for our students to join these critical community conversations, and they have demonstrated their engagement in these important issues by interjecting their voices in thoughtful and peaceful means,” wrote East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg in a letter to parents. “We hope to see this thoughtful dialogue carry into the classroom.” Mendelsberg asked parents to keep the injured police in their thoughts, and clarified that not all East students had protested or supported the protests.

Students said that some teachers had been leading conversations about Ferguson during and after the protests. One English class read a poem from the 1930s about police brutality.

Mark Ajluni, who teaches the journalism class at East, said he was struck by students’ engagement with the issue. “They were really listening to each other. They really wanted to talk about it…a kid was killed that was about their age.”

But the discussions aren’t always straightforward.

Before they began planning their documentary on Thursday, the East students were deep in a conversation about the connection between race and class. Was gentrification in Five Points just capitalism at work, or was it an example of the workings of a society with race issues?

The students and their teachers bantered back and forth for a few minutes before junior Morris interrupted: “We’re not going to solve this here.”

Morris wondered if they could narrow the focus and examine whether the protests would affect their own school.

“Remember when you were talking about the whole walk-out of the standardized testing thing, and you were saying, if kids could make a big protest it’d make national news and it would change something?” Morris asked one of his classmates.

“Well here’s the big protest—kids could obviously get together and voice their opinions—but what if that protest refused to fight the problems within our school, not in our country? We could show, how do we keep the excitement going?”

Students discuss Ferguson
Students discuss Ferguson

“But that sounds like an activist piece,” a classmate responded.

Jaffe thought that might not be a bad thing. “I think our documentary should take a stand.”

The students said they thought most of the coverage of the protests had been fair, and had disentangled the police injury from the students’ cause. But one student said he had had seen an article on a site called Young Cons that blamed the protesters for the cops’ injuries.

“Yeah, and if we were never born they wouldn’t have gotten hurt either,” replied another.

Sorting out rumors from truth was a topic of conversation. Someone had heard about a break-in; another said one of his classmates had thought his car was the one that had hit the police.

So too was naming the reasons students protested. “There were a lot of kids who I think were protesting for the right reason. But also, kids just love to be involved,” said Morris.

Metscher said other protests in Colorado had had an impact. “Seeing other kids, that not only were they able to organize a successful walk out but they got voices heard, it showed you can make your voice heard.”

“Some people were like, why is walking out of school even going to help anything,” said Jaffe. “To me it was like, we’re students, and this is what we can do. A grievous injustice took place in our nation and it’s continuing to take place.”

“As I was filming inside, I was getting a shot of everyone’s feet coming down, and I just got goosebumps.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”