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St. Louis Schools To Reopen After Ferguson Grand Jury Decision


St. Louis area students return to school today, first time since the grand jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The people going back include those at Maplewood Richmond Heights High. After the killing in Ferguson, this school launched a student group on race relations. Renee Montagne spoke with the principal Kevin Grawer and senior Jazmen Bell.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: This coming week would seem to be perhaps a tough one for teachers and principals in the entire St. Louis area. And, Kevin Grawer, what are your plans for how your teachers are going to be talking about Ferguson?

KEVIN GRAWER: Well, you mentioned it's a tough one. I think we have to change that mindset to look at it as an opportunity. And what we're planning to do is what we always do, is open the doors of communication and try to stay ahead of the topic, the issues, which are very complex and deep and sometimes messy. And so that's why we've kind of created groups like SGORR - Student Group on Race Relations - and to kind of base it on the concept of, you know, when was the last time you allowed somebody to change the way you think about something?

MONTAGNE: And, Jazmen Bell, as a student, what is your experience with how Ferguson, and all the events there, has affected kids this year? I mean, is it being talked about at the lockers and at lunch? Is it causing any tension?

JAZMEN BELL: I think it's caused people to think a lot deeper about the things that they say and do to other people, you know? And something I've talked about before is where I've been sitting at a table with my friends - and I sit with all black girls - and we relate to each other and I think that's why we sit together.

But there was one girl who I knew was new and she was walking around looking for a place to sit with her lunch tray, and I thought about inviting her to our table, but she was white, you know? And, I mean, I wanted to invite her to our table because that's normal, you know, when you see somebody searching for a seat, but what I thought about first was really, like, would she be comfortable sitting here with all black girls, you know? And I just didn't think that that's something she would be comfortable with so I didn't invite her. And it's a shame I had to think that way, but, I mean, it's really made me realize how big these feelings can be even though they are so small and unseen.

MONTAGNE: Is that typical that at your high school there is a division racially?

BELL: Yeah, definitely, but I think what's really interesting is that it's completely subconscious. No one actually makes a conscious effort to not sit with people who don't look like them. It just sort of happens that way. And I think it's really interesting how no one questions those feelings until they come to a group like SGORR.

MONTAGNE: Do you have an example of that, especially in these last weeks?

BELL: Well, our last meeting was before the jury's decision. We did talk about it once, I think. And what we ended up discussing the most was whether or not the riots were justified. And there were definitely people on very opposite ends of the argument, but, like, looking back at it we got through it so respectfully. We were very thoughtful with everything we were saying.

MONTAGNE: Let me just ask you, Kevin Grawer, you know, this group has not met since the grand jury decision. Do you expect everybody to come back to the group?

GRAWER: I do. In fact, I expect more. We will likely meet the first day after school in an impromptu meeting and then we'll do our regular meeting time - Thursday morning, 7 a.m. You know, and what Jazmen's referring to is - creating that decorum within the meeting - is really important to having people say what they need to say. And I always tell the kids, you know, how you relay your message has a lot to do with how it's accepted and whom you influence.

You know, I had one student come to me and he said, Mr. Grawer, I'd like to go to that SGORR meeting, but you guys can't handle me. And I said well, what do you mean by that? And he said I'm too militant and you all don't want to hear what I have to say. I said no, no, you're coming. And it's funny how he got his point across really well, but while he was there he did it in a way that we all do it, which is respectfully.

We disagree sometimes, but we move on and afterwards it's - the group becomes tighter and tighter 'cause you know where people are coming from and sometimes that's enough to get you to another level. When you know where someone's coming from you can really take it to a higher level.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both for joining us.

GRAWER: It's our pleasure.

BELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Student Jazmen Bell, Principal Kevin Grawer, of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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