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St. Louis-Area Schools to Tackle Civil Unrest, Race Relations When They Reopen

Some St. Louis- area schools that were hoping to reopen Monday after closing last week following a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of a black teenager, are closed because of bad weather.

The large protests spawned by the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown have quieted, and school districts, such as Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings, Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood, are expected to reopen this week. St. Louis Public Schools, which closed last week, did open today.

When all of the schools do reopen, educators are expected to tackle the grand jury's decision in the Michael Brown case, the ensuing protests, and the larger discussions it has spawned about race relations and police practices. Educators had to confront similar issues at the start of the school  year after the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson that led to days of protests—some of which were violent—and a widely-criticized militarized response by the police. Wilson, who is white, resigned from the Ferguson police department on Saturday.

Clayton School District added a helpful link for staff, parents and the community on its website on how to talk to children about civil unrest. And even before students and staff were sent home after the verdict was released last week, Riverview Gardens had developed a grade-specific game plan on how to deal with the unrest when students return to school. (Some of Riverview Gardens students come from Canfield Drive in Ferguson, where Brown was shot.)

K-2 students, for example, will use Peter Rabbit for a discussion on handling conflicts, character conflict and conflict resolution. Students will also have to opportunity to  express their feelings through art therapy, said Bonita Jamison, the district's assistant superintendent of student support services. 

High school students will complete an assignment analyzing political cartoons, looking for symbolism and irony, among others.

There will also be writing activities for students, in which they will have the  opportunity to write pieces about the events and the unrest from the point of view of those who were affected— for example, from the point of view of a police officer, a community member, a parishioner, or a student, she said.

Older students in high school may also analyze articles on the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Calif., and compare and contrast what happened there to the present day events in Ferguson.

Teachers were also given pointers on how to answer questions that may come up, Jamison said.  Since September, principals and teachers have received professional development on how to address the civil unrest and provide support for students, she said. 

"We want to make sure that our teachers are equipped to answer our learners' questions...and ensure that those answers are as objective as possible," Jamison said.

While most districts shut down the day after the grand jury's decision was announced, the Jennings School District, citing heightened anxiety, closed for the entire week of Thanksgiving. 

"If you have any uncertainty, to me, closing is always the answer, and it's always worked for us," said Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent in Jennings.

Jennings, which borders Ferguson, has no school buses, and students normally walk to school.

Police and some protesters clashed in the immediate aftermath of the announcement last week that Wilson would not face criminal charges, and businesses in parts of Ferguson were set on fire. President Obama, Brown's family and others had urged those dissatisfied the grand jury's decision to keep the protests peaceful. Many of the protests across the country have been largely peaceful.

Protests have continued, albeit in a subdued nature. Many demonstrated on Black Friday, calling for an economic boycott. The NAACP started a 120-mile march on Saturday, from the spot where Brown was killed to the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. 

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