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School officials ponder public’s safety concerns, suggestions

JEFF-VANDER-LOU – St. Louis Public Schools officials and the superintendent have about one week before they have to turn in their answers to comments and school safety formulas from area residents. 

Superintendent Kelvin Adams, staffers and the school board met with the public last Thursday at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Ave., to get their ideas on curbing the violence plaguing the city. 

SLPS officials mostly sat quietly while area residents presented – sometimes testily – their frustrations and suggestions. 

The district recorded the residents’ comments as they spoke one by one at a microphone. Area residents had no qualms about offering comments and answers. 

Some ideas were for holistic, curriculum-changing practices that would teach students ways to move beyond conflicts that lead to gun violence. Most agree that blacks here – especially boys – could certainly benefit from social and cultural lessons that might keep them from graduating into killers. Many note a prevailing culture that promotes a “kill or be killed” mentality.    

Such concepts received applause. However, school board member Adam Layne, in a previous interview with The NorthSider, had outlined barriers to changing and tailoring the district’s curricula. 

“The curriculum has to coincide with what the state exam standards are,” Layne said, explaining that changes would require convincing the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish coinciding state test standards. 

The session seemed at once ironic, disheartening and eyeopening: The city’s school district was asking to be instructed on instructing students. 

“How can a student achieve if he is ridden down with drama and grief?” asked Edward Ducree, who said he was working with the local NAACP to implement conflict resolution, anger management and trauma prevention. 

One man, Tory Russell, was angry when he stepped to the microphone. He said that the district had known from Facebook posts that a fight was going to take place during a jamboree at Soldan High School two weekends ago. 

Jurnee Thompson, 8, of Herzog Elementary School, was shot and killed after a fight that evening that started at the football game.  

“So we have a clear track record that the district knows things, the superintendent, teachers, coaches know things. It’s ignored,” Russell charged. 

St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner was one of the few elected officials who attended. Also present were Third Alderman Brandon Bosely (whose ward includes Vashon High School), 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Hubbard and state Rep. Sarah Unsicker (D-91st Dist.). 

“We have to stop how we address the cycle of hopelessness. … We have to stop this school-to-prison pipeline … we have to have a public health attack,” said Gardner, who works with students through a contract with Sankofa Mentoring and Training Center. 

“And, so I’m asking Dr. Adams and the school that we expand our school program, because we have to have safe places for these kids,” Gardner said. “They don’t have hope, they’re homeless and don’t have nothing to eat. They don’t have a coat. They don’t have a place to go.”

“We can’t prosecute the problem away,” she said. Gardner is working to reform the city’s criminal justice system.

Trauma surgeon Dr. Laurie Punch of BJC, who also works with the Sankofa mentoring program, called the surge in gun violence this summer the equivalent of an atomic bomb spreading its toxicity to the entire north city population.  

However, she said, it is not within the spectrum of what the district can do, to abate that. 

Here’s what the schools can do, she said: “They can educate children in a reasonably safe and nurturing environment, giving the best of care, making sure their basic needs are met while that education is happening.”

She said one thing the district could do was “give these children a frame of reference to understand what they have been exposed to; give them the power to act; and equip them right now, today, with the opportunity to change their own narrative.

“Help them understand the impact of what they’ve already withstood; we can give them a breakdown of what trauma does to the heart, mind, body and soul.”

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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