Communities around Ferguson, Missouri, were on edge while awaiting a grand jury's decision on whether to indict a white police officer for shooting an unarmed black teenage boy in August. The announcement to not indict the officer was made at 8 p.m. Central time. On Tuesday schools around Ferguson decided to close after a night of violent protests that resulted in the burning and looting of many businesses.
Local school transportation directors like Kenny Mulder were notified of this announcement well in advance to ensure the safety of students. Mulder, who oversees specialized transportation for 3,700 students at the Special School District (SSD) in Olivette, told STN that authorities were supposed to give all area school districts a three-hour advance notification if the announcement came during the week and a 24-hour notification if on the weekend.
His district has kept extra staff at their schools until the last students are dropped off in case violent protests erupt along a specific bus route and compel one or more drivers to quickly return students to school for protection.
Student attendance has not dropped since the rioting ignited in August because parents view schools as a “safe haven,” said John Mueller, the district’s safety director.
Though the rioting and looting took place in the North County area, Mulder said now the crowds are protesting more in the Clayton area, where the courthouse is located (pictured, above).
“It’s really hard in this particular situation because we don’t know where (we) will be impacted: Our court system is in Clayton, the shooting took place in Ferguson and the officer lives in the South County area, so in reality this could take place anywhere,” he explained. “Nothing much really took place around the officer’s residence. We thought there were some threats, so we did an early dismissal on one day, just as a precaution, but nothing happened in that area.”
SSD uses an all-call system called School Reach to reach district parents on multiple phone lines, and then transportation staff works to “get the buses there as quickly as possible and dismiss as quickly as possible,” Mulder said.
He added that the media has actually been helpful in providing information on hotspots to avoid, which is both good and bad: “It’s bad because it’s kind of promoting what they’re doing, but it’s good for us because we can see where the activities are happening.”
On Monday other local districts posted updates on their websites about how they plan to handle the Ferguson situation.
Acting Superintendent Lawrence W. Larrew of the Ferguson-Florissant School District posted the following: "Due to the anticipated increase in traffic and possible demonstrations in our area as a result of the pending Grand Jury announcement this evening, and in consideration of the safety of all students and staff, the Ferguson-Florissant School District will be closed on Tuesday, Nov. 25. All after-school and evening activities will also be cancelled."
Superintendent Grayling Tobias of the Hazelwood District in St. Louis said in a Nov. 13 letter that the District has responded to many emails, phone calls and social media inquiries about their emergency preparedness plans. He noted that the three-hour window provided by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office would allow the district enough time to transport students home safely.
The Jennings School District, which includes part of Ferguson, cancelled two days of classes this week in anticipation of the grand jury decision. Mulder pointed out that this district does not provide bus service, so most of the students walk to school.
Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that some people had been approaching students on their walk home.
“With the heightened anxiety and activity, we thought it would be better for students and staff to extend the holiday at this point,” said Anderson.