FERGUSON — Schools in Ferguson welcomed back students from their summer breaks on Monday, providing the children with a much-needed break from the raucous street protests and police patrols that have gripped the St. Louis suburb since a white officer killed an unarmed black man more than two weeks ago.
Classes in the Ferguson-Florissant School District were scheduled to begin Aug. 14, five days after Michael Brown's shooting death. But subsequent demonstrations marred by frequent clashes between police and demonstrators led to several delays in the start date. The district serves about 11,000 students from the two northern St. Louis County communities.
Students, teachers and parents expressed an eagerness to return to their routines, describing school as a place of refuge and a nurturing environment shielded from the chaos of the past two weeks.
"They know they're safe and they're excited (be)cause they're in school," said Donetta Cleveland, a Ferguson Middle School parent. "And the teachers have been prepared for it."
Teachers and staff members spent one of their unexpected free days last week receiving special crisis training. The district has doubled the number of counselors available in its 24 schools, at least for now. But noticeably absent from district schools Monday morning was a visible police presence — by design.
"We want school to be as normal as possible," said Rob Chabot, a Ferguson business owner and school board president.
Brown was a recent graduate of Normandy High School, where classes resumed as scheduled last week. He spent the summer living with his grandmother in the Canfield Green apartment complex, a part of the Riverview Gardens school district. School there and in the nearby Jennings district also started on time one week ago before officials abruptly scrapped classes after a mid-week escalation in violence.
"These kids should be able to be kids," said Kenna Lewis, a 31-year-old Canfield Green resident, as she walked her two children to school with another parent.
Briona Hamilton, 12, said she felt "protected" upon returning to school Monday. She also described a sense of nervous excitement marked by more practical concerns, from making sure she could find the right classrooms to fitting in at a new school.
"I can compare it to a little girl getting a pony for the first time or something like that because, like, I've been waiting so long for school to start back," she said.