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.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.