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

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: 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.   

“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.  

“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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