Missouri Students Risk Serious Penalties For Walkout Protests

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HAZELWOOD, Missouri — After high school students across the country walked out of class earlier this week calling for greater police accountability, one school district in the very Missouri county where teenager Michael Brown was killed chose to highlight the repercussions for students who left their classrooms.

Hazelwood School District in north St. Louis County also consulted with local law enforcement to increase school security. The stricter security measures made Hazelwood West High School feel like “a prison,” one student said.

“At lunch there are officers at every exit, and you can’t leave class to use the bathroom without a police escort,” the student told The Huffington Post.

After Hazelwood high school students walked out on Tuesday, Superintendent Grayling Tobias issued a statement noting that the district does “not condone disruptive behavior.” On Wednesday, he provided an update warning that students will face consequences if they “choose to be disruptive.”

Students who participated in walkouts could face consequences affecting “A+ status, attendance at prom or graduation, participation in athletic or other extracurricular activities and academic grades,” Tobias announced. That “A+ status” refers to a program that awards students two tuition-free years at a junior college.

Tobias, who sits on the new Ferguson Commission formed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D), stated that the school district respects its students’ First Amendment rights. But he encouraged parents to talk with their children about “the importance of attending class.”

Parents responded on Facebook to Tobias’ letter. Some expressed approval of the threatened consequences and increased security, while others felt that more should be done to shield students from any disruption in their education.

One post read, “Wrong tactic to take. You should be more concerned about the students that stayed in class and were trying to learn something. Obviously you are not the person we should be trusting our children’s safety too.”

Some students at Hazelwood East High School were seen yelling at police officers during a walkout this week. According to the school district’s Facebook page, “students identified on the video did face consequences.”

Hazelwood School District, which covers a large chunk of north St. Louis County, has three public high schools: Hazelwood West, East and Central. Nationally, it may be best known as the subject of a landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision holding that student newspapers at public high schools are not entitled to full First Amendment protections. That case arose after Hazelwood East administrators nixed articles about divorce and teen pregnancy from the student newspaper.

Earlier this week, high school students in the neighboring Ferguson/Florissant School District also took part in the nationwide walkouts. But their protests were treated more like a field trip on free speech and public dissent — and didn’t come with heavy consequences.

Alphonse Boure, 15, a student at McCluer South-Berkeley High in Ferguson, said his school’s walkout was supported by the head principal.

“At first, the kids were all rowdy because we didn’t think the principal was going to go with it — until he told us to go to the auditorium. We sat down and we talked about it. He said if this is what we want to do, then he’ll walk with us. We walked down the street. Then we got on a bus to take us back to school,” said Boure.

He suggested the principal’s presence was part of the reason he decided to join the demonstration. “I felt safe because I was with the principal. If I just walked out and there wasn’t any guards around, then I would’ve felt like I was in trouble,” said Boure.

Similarly, at Normandy High, the school that Brown had attended, the superintendent and principal joined students in protesting on Friday, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.

On a recorded phone call, sent out to Hazelwood School District parents on Friday evening, Superintendent Tobias said how pleased he was that no students walked out of class that day. Tobias explained that it was important for them to remain in school because of this week’s state testing. He noted that the test scores would affect the school district’s rating, which could in turn affect local property values.