Kirkwood kids find it's hard to talk about the tra
11:00 pm
Thu April 17, 2008

Kirkwood kids find it's hard to talk about the tragedy

In the weeks since the Feb. 7 assault
on the Kirkwood City Hall, a sizeable group of citizens has gathered
regularly to discuss issues of race and to search for understanding
and healing.  In contrast to the larger community, no groups have
formed at Kirkwood High School to specifically address these issues,
although the Black Achievement and Cultural Club, the Social Justice
Committee and students enrolled in the alternative education program,
Atlas, have discussed them.

Some students from Meacham Park say no one listened when they raised the possibility that
the city had treated Charles “Cookie” Thornton unjustly before his murderous assault. Others felt uncomfortable expressing
their opinions. As a result, much of the discussion of Thornton
among Meacham Park students has been back in the neighborhood.
There, many students and adults empathize with Thornton and some even
consider him a hero.   

Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham
Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, doesn’t call Thornton a
hero, but she says, “Cookie had a vision and the children on the playgrounds
in Meacham Park are talking about it.” 

David Holley, the principal, acknowledges
racial divisions at the high school but believes that the atmosphere
is tolerant. “These kids here are very segregated, but there’s
no hostility and there’s no anger,” he said. “People treat
each other with respect in this school, and the different groups leave
each other alone. I know I should probably have a higher standard
than that, but kids here leave each other alone.” 

Brandon Mitchener, co-editor-in-chief of "The Kirkwood Call," underscored the depth of the segregation
in a column three weeks after the shooting. He recalled that he
had never visited friends in Meacham Park and couldn’t find a reporter
willing to venture there for a prayer vigil the day after
the shooting. “We all wish we could make this claim: We, the people
of Kirkwood, are not divided,” he wrote. “But the truth of
the matter is that we cannot.” 

The night of
the shootings

As Thornton stepped into City Hall on Feb. 7, Holley and assistant
principal Mike Wade were attending the school play. 

"Charley's Aunt," Wade said.
“I’ll never forget it.” 

Holley had left his cell phone on his
kitchen counter, expecting to return home directly after the performance. During the first intermission, he stepped out of the Keating Theatre
and was approached by a woman.  

“You’re not going to believe this,”
she said. “There was a shooting at City Hall.”   

“What?” Holley said. He was
stunned. 

By 7:45 that evening, Wade knew the shootings had occurred and that they were serious.

Holley and Wade then called assistant
superintendent Michael Havener, who had information about the victims. The two administrators remained at school for hours after the
play, calling staff members, including educational support counselor
Tom Gaither-Ganim, to discuss what to do with
the students and staff the following day.   

“From that time on,” Wade said, “we
were planning.” 

Before Feb. 7,
KHS was already coping with several traumatic events.   

On Jan. 21, following a
Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, KHS sophomore Robert Williams
was killed by a gunshot wound to the forehead in front of his grandmother’s
home in south St. Louis. Two 17-year-olds have been charged with
first-degree murder.   

A week later, KHS graduate and 2001 Suburban-West
basketball player of the year, Anthony Smith, died of leukemia the day
before he would have celebrated his 25 birthday with his
twin brother, Antoine.   

Ten days after that, Thornton killed police officers Tom Ballman and Williams Biggs, Councilwoman Connie Karr, Councilman Mike Lynch,
Public Works Director Kenneth Yost and critically wounded Mayor Mike
Swoboda.    

Holley and Wade also noted the loss of
Steve Powell, KHS class of ‘75, who died of cancer on Feb. 10. 
He was in Cookie Thornton’s graduating class at Truman State University.   

“It’s been a terrible two weeks,”
Holley said in a Feb. 21 interview. 

The day after

On Feb. 8, the schedule
at KHS resembled that of a typical school day. But, as sophomore Kelsey Freeborg described,
“It was quiet in the halls, and you could tell there had been a big
disaster.” 

Six people had been killed the previous
evening, including two relatives of KHS students, Councilwoman Karr
and “Cookie” Thornton, the perpetrator of the attack.    

In an office filing cabinet, Holley
has a folder labeled “Tragedy.”  After briefly addressing the events
at City Hall, the statement, which may differ from Holley’s exact
comments, reads:  


We
want to try to have a regular school day today, but we understand that
some of you may need to talk about this. I have asked your teachers
to be sensitive to each class today, especially during the morning,
as we all try to process what occurred last night. If you feel
like you need to talk to someone about this please tell your teacher
to get a pass to go to McCallie Hall where we will have counselors and
other adults to whom you can talk about this.  Teachers, if you
feel like you can help or if you need help, we will be there for you. 
     

Before the first bell that morning, teachers
and staff discussed how to support the students.  

“Obviously, this is uncharted water,”
Holley said during the 10-minute meeting. “I’ve never been
through anything this horrible and you haven’t been through anything
this horrible either.” 

Counseling and support services would
be provided in the lecture hall, but the students would report to their
first period classrooms.   

'empower all learners'

 

“With a situation like this,” Gaither-Ganim
said, “rather than doing a big debriefing in the lecture hall, which
we typically do if a student has died, we thought that given, for the
most part, the excellent relationships that the teachers have with the
kids here, it would be most comfortable and probably most effective
for them to just process within their classrooms and that that should
be allowed.”  

Holley told the teachers that the morning
would be dictated by the expressed needs of the students.     

“You know your kids better than we
do,” Holley said to the teachers, “and if your kids need to talk
about this for 10 minutes then it’s 10 minutes. If they need
to talk about it for the whole period, it’s the whole period.”  

In addition, the administrative staff
circulated in the hallways to talk with  students
and teachers. Holley and Wade visited almost every classroom.    

Some students were directly affected by the
tragedy. Friends of Karr’s daughter, sophomore Lauren Hummel,
students whose parents had been present at City Hall during the shooting
and one student related to “Cookie” Thornton spent most of the
day with Gaither-Ganim or other counselors in their offices. Otherwise few
students used the counseling services
in McCallie Hall.   

“We had, off and on, no more than about
15 kids in there at any given time,” Gaither-Ganim said. “It
was one of those situations that obviously affects everybody to a certain
extent, but there were very obvious gradations of trauma.” 

“You could just tell it was harder
for the adults,” Holley said. “And I don’t want to minimize
how hard it was for the kids, but the adults better understood the magnitude
of what had happened than the kids did. By third or fourth hour, we were not back to normal, but we were pretending
to teach and kids were pretending to learn.” 

Racial discussion short-circuited

Freshman Michael McDowell is one of 75
African-American students at KHS who live in Meacham Park, the neighborhood in which Thornton was a prominent figure.    

As a member of Hope Unlimited, a youth
group sponsored by Central Presbyterian Church for young people in Meacham
Park, McDowell discussed his reactions with other black youth from his neighborhood.  

The students talked about Thornton’s
civil disputes with Kirkwood and his assertions of racial
injustice, but McDowell said he couldn't discuss these issues
at school. 

“It seemed like when you try to talk
about it, you kind of get cut off,” he said. “We was talking
about it in class, and one of my teachers told me and a friend to be
quiet because we don’t know what we’re talking about when we said
that’s what we was hearing. I just said, ‘Forget it.’
I didn’t talk about it no more.” 

Brianna Mosley, another African-American
freshman, also found her concerns unaddressed at school. After
an evening meeting of the Christian youth group, Young Life, which draws teenagers from different parts of Kirkwood, including
Meacham Park, she hesitated to share her perspective with a mixed group that included a friend of Lauren Hummel.   

“You don’t want us to lie about nothing,
right?” she asked. “I ain’t even going to say it because
it’s wrong.”   

Mosley paused before asking, “Can I
say it?” and was reminded that her comments could appear in this report.  

“In my classroom,” she said, “there
was a girl whose momma had died and it was just sad because she wasn’t
there. But I feel like … I mean, they messed with [Cookie Thornton],
so he wanted to do it. They shouldn’t have messed with
him. That’s how I feel. He didn’t have to do what he
did and those people didn’t deserve to die, but that’s how he reacted.” 

When asked if she had shared her perspective
at school, Mosley said, “They didn’t ask me to say nothing.
They just told me to write on the card. After that day, they didn’t
talk about it anymore in my classes.” 

Mosley testified to Thornton’s character,
saying, “he wasn’t a bad man,” a point that junior Shanae Tatum
supported, having also grown up in Meacham Park. Tatum described
Thornton as “the nicest person ever,” who had provided go-karts
and a trampoline for kids in the neighborhood. Having talked about the tragedy with her mother, Tatum had a different opinion about
addressing these issues at school.    

“We took it hard, but we like to talk
about it in Meacham Park,” she said. “School is a totally different environment. They shouldn’t make kids talk about it.
We don’t like to talk about that stuff at school.” 

Is Thornton a hero?

As a committee member for the Community
for Understanding and Healing, the Rev. David Bennett of Kirkwood United
Methodist Church emphasized bringing the youth into the ongoing dialogue. He recognized that the response
of young Meacham Park residents is complicated by their relationship to Thornton.   

“These kids saw who he was before and
he was a wonderful person,” Bennett said. “That’s a part
of Cookie that they’re remembering, but he also spoke out
about things that he felt were unfair and I think he may have spoken
about some true things. But the way he addressed those inequities
was absolutely wrong, and that’s what we need to clarify for the kids — that
there’s injustice that needs to be righted, but how you bring about
justice is not the way that he did it.” 

Bennett hoped that future meetings
would help these young people address the apparent contradiction between
Thornton’s character and his actions.  

“It’s about connecting with those
kids and moving them to the next place. I don’t know if we should
really try to change their view of him completely. That’s so
convoluted, but we’ve got to be the next hero for them.”

Connection between Thornton and Kevin Johnson

As co-facilitator for the Hope Unlimited
youth group, Cecil Jones, a 57-year Meacham Park resident, addressed
this issue of “hero status,” also in reference to the case of Kevin
Johnson, the 21-year-old who shot and killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. William
McEntee on July 5, 2005, and was recently sentenced to death.   

“Those kids look at somebody like Kevin
Johnson or Cookie Thornton as some type of hero because of the distrust
and the disenfranchising over the past that our people have seen and
felt,” Jones said. 

“When I was growing up, my parents
used to tell me, ‘Don’t trust white people.’ We always had
to trust what we already had because of the injustices that had existed
in the past. So, growing up with that kind of idea, it filters
to our kids. But now that we know the truth, we’re trying to
work with the kids and show them that there’s another world besides
the one that our grandparents created for us.” 

During Johnson's murder trial, some
African-American students wore T-shirts to school reading, “Free Kevin
Johnson.” Brandon Mitchener, co-editor of "The Call," recalled
how such events had created divisions within the student body.  

juan marable


“After that, there was a lot more racial
tension, and some of that still exists,” he said. “It was black
kids who wore the T-shirts and white kids who were getting upset about
it, but I think no one wanted to draw attention to race and that’s
a good thing.” 

Freshman Juan Marable was one of the
students who wore the T-shirts. He knew Johnson from his neighborhood
and felt that Johnson’s emotional state in response to the death of
his younger brother should have been considered in the verdict.   

“I wanted to support him and to show
that I cared,” Marable said. “People didn’t like when we
wore the shirts to school. They didn’t like it at all.
The teachers told us to take them off and we knew that we had to or
we’d get in trouble.”   

Starting the conversation

Assistant principal Romona Miller believes
that racial tensions can boil over without honest conversations in which students feel comfortable expressing
their feelings. 

“We have good relations here,” she
said, “but when things like this happen, it causes kids and adults
alike to feel like they have to choose sides, and a lot of times those
sides are chosen along those racial lines.  Then it’s right there
in your face.” 

As a facilitator for the Community for
Understanding and Healing and the sponsor for the Black Achievement
and Cultural Club, Miller has begun some of these conversations.
One issue is the assumption that black students
are either from Meacham Park or voluntary transfer students from
the city — categories that her own son, a ’07 graduate, did not fit
into.   

“We talked about how the kids get to
the point where they’re stigmatized,” Miller said, “and that the
kids who are in Meacham Park even more so, because often you see all
the bad and you don’t see the good.” 

‘They try to judge us before they
know us’

 

Like other young people who live in his
neighborhood, Juan Marable believes that the recent tragedies in Kirkwood
have negatively affected the larger community’s perception of Meacham
Park youth. 

“Some people try to see us differently,”
Marable said. “They try to judge us before they know us.” 

“I think everybody looks down on us
since the Cookie thing and then the officer killing,” freshman Zack
Hawkins said. “They think we’re criminals or something.” 

“It’s motivation to me,” Marable
said. “It just makes me want to work harder, so I can push forth
and prove people wrong.” 

Cecil Jones, who graduated from KHS in
1970, said that the racism he experienced as a student is no longer
tolerated in the district, but that the young people from his community
continue to struggle with the school’s culture.    

“What they’re facing now is trying
to maintain their dignity and their cultural heritage while trying to
be a part of mainstream white America inside that public school,”
Jones said. “It’s hard because they’ll go home being taught
one thing and go to school being taught another.  And to try to
bridge that difference. … it never meets.” 

For both white and black students, the
fact is evident that the high school remains, to a large extent, socially
segregated.   

“If you go to our school, you’ll
see where the black kids hang out and where the white kids hang out,”
Michael McDowell said. “Everybody you see, they all go to their same
spots all the time.” 

McDowell, who is still grieving over
the loss of his friend, Robert Williams, while also coping with the
broader trauma that his community experienced on Feb. 7,
shook his head when asked what the school should do to support him.   

“I don’t know,” he said. “You can’t do nothing much.” 

Later, sitting with his peers, he had
an idea.  

“I’ve been thinking that sometime
they should just have a big meeting with a whole bunch of kids,” he
said, “and just talk about it.” 

Freshman Montrell Jones, who volunteered
with other members of Hope Unlimited at the March 8 discussion
hosted by the Community for Understanding and Healing at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, spoke about the value of dialogue. 

"If you don’t talk
about it, there’s more tension between African-Americans and white
people," he said. "If you talk about it, it’ll help clear it up and keep
the racism out of it.” 

Should the school do more?

Principal Holley acknowledges that “some
people want us to do even more intentional things. I know they do because
I get their calls. And I put them off because I said, ‘You know
what, I’m still grieving.’ This isn’t about me, but I personally
cannot get through this, and I’m supposed to be the leader of this
school and I have never been through anything like this in my life.” 

“It is really an understatement to
talk about what a pall this has cast on the whole community and the
whole school and the whole school year,” he said. “It’s
too tragic to go away.  Something like that doesn’t heal for
a long time.”   

Although the emotional repercussions continue to be felt, to varying degrees, Holley believes that this school year
is still very similar to those before it. With the seniors returning
from spring break and anticipating graduation, Holley wants to ensure a positive experience for them in their final months.    

“The goal of the adults in the school
has been to provide a safe haven for our kids and as normal a 2008 school
year as possible," he said.  

“I’m not saying this is a positive — maybe
this is one of my weaknesses — but I don’t go to [the students] and
say, ‘How are you doing in light of the shootings?’ I say,
‘How about the volleyball game?’ or, ‘How about the play?’” 

“If somebody said to me, ‘The school
should be doing more,’ I’d probably say, ‘Tell me what that is,’”
Holley said. “‘Tell me something that you think is meaningful because we really talk to our kids and the teachers really do, too.’”


Ryan Miller is a Kirkwood High School graduate and a freelance writer. 

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