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With Michael Brown Grand Jury Verdict Near, Missouri District Cancels School

As tensions mount over the impending grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case, the Jennings, Mo., school district has decided to close Monday and Tuesday next week, giving students the entire week off.

The closure, reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Friday, is not based on knowledge that a grand jury decision on whether or not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown will be released over the weekend.

The district's superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, told the paper that she made the call to close the schools given "the heightened anxiety and activity."  

"We thought it would be better for students and staff to extend the holiday at this point," she said.

Earlier this month, Anderson told Education Week that any decision on whether to close the schools will be guided by her desire to keep students safe. Students in Jennings, which borders Ferguson, walk to school.

One can always make up a missed school day, she said at the time,  "You can't make up a life."

Media reports have chronicled growing unease in the Ferguson-area as people await the news. While the office of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch has not said that the decision will be released over the weekend, many observers seem to think that's the case. Some fear a repeat of the violent protests and looting, and the militarized police response, that followed Brown's shooting on Aug. 9. The widespread unrest caught many offguard and caused some of the schools in the area to close for up to two weeks.

In anticipation of the grand jury decision, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday. Protests, which had died down, have flared up again. Locals have blamed outside agitators for the heightened tensions. And churches and schools have started making contingency plans to ensure that families and children in the area remain fed if schools are forced to close because of unrest. The majority of students in Ferguson attend classes in Jennings, Hazelwood, Riverview Gardens, or Ferguson-Florissant districts, and huge majorities of those districts' students qualify for federally subsidized meal programs.

Jennings is the only school so far to close for the entire week. (Schools were expected to break for Thanksgiving.) Officials in Ferguson-Florissant schools and Riverview Gardens have not made a decision to close all of next week. Districts further away are also providing guidance to their staff  and advice to teachers on how to approach the topic with students.

Grayling Tobias, the superintendent of the Hazelwood school district, wrote in a post on the district's website last week that the districts will be given 24-hour-notice—before any information is released to the media—if the grand jury decision is made on a weekend, and a three-hour notice, if the decision is reached during the day. The districts had asked the prosecutor's office to release the grand jury decision a weekend or after school hours on a weekday.

District officials also told the paper that law enforcement had asked them to cancel classes for two days following the announcement to keep extra traffic off the streets.

Anderson, the Jennings superintendent, said she was particularly concerned that a group of students had been approached on Thursday by adults who handed them incendiary fliers regarding the pending grand jury decision. Anderson told the paper that the fliers encouraged students "to be disruptive " and encouraged them "to think of the police as pigs."

Jennings, which provides breakfast and, in many cases, dinners to students, will still continue those services at the high school and at one of its elementary schools even though classes will be canceled on Monday and Tuesday.

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