NPR Story
2:56 am
Fri August 22, 2014

Emotional Distress A Worry As Kids Go Back To School In Ferguson

Originally published on Fri August 22, 2014 2:32 pm

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The situation in Ferguson, Mo., seems like it might be starting to calm down since the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police — and the protests that followed. On Thursday, Missouri's Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard out of Ferguson.

And ever since the unrest erupted, schools have been closed. But with a relative calm returning to the streets, kids in Ferguson are expected back in classrooms Monday.

At Griffith Elementary School, parents, grandparents and aunties bring their kids to get free sack lunches. Even though school has been postponed, the district is handing out free lunches every day.

"When were you supposed to start school?" I ask a group of three students, Raven, Amon and Caleb.

"Thursday —" Raven says.

" — Monday," one of them says, disagreeing.

"No, we supposed to start Thursday," Raven insists.

Raven is right. She and Amon are in third grade; Caleb is in sixth grade. I ask them about what's been going on in Ferguson — if they know anything, what they know.

"People acting like a fool. ... Well, they shootin' and stuff ... because Michael Brown got shot by the police," one of them tells me.

"They've been burning places down, and they've been stealing stuff," another says.

Griffith Elementary, where these three kids go to school, is less than a mile away from the protest zone where — until recently — there was looting and nightly clashes with the cops. So, for some kids, the first day of school might be more stressful than usual.

Jerry Dunn, executive director of Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, says dealing with the trauma begins with listening to the kids.

"So, initiate that contact, be accessible and available to the kids," Dunn says, coaching social workers and teachers on how to help students through it. "Are they from that neighborhood? ... Have they participated in some of the demonstrations and protests? Have their family members been arrested?"

Demetrius Upchurch walks through the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot and killed. Upchurch is a schoolteacher and is strolling hand-in-hand with his 4-year-old son, Aiden.

"We've been talking about it because he witnessed me getting attacked by cops in June," Upchurch says. He was standing outside of his mother's house after dropping Aiden off, he recalls, when an officer walked up and asked for his ID.

"I don't have to give you my name, I don't have to give you anything, because I'm just standing outside," Upchurch recalls saying. "From that point on, he just grabbed me, threw me on top of the car, cuffed me, threw me on the ground, put his foot on my chest."

And, Upchurch says, his son Aiden saw everything.

"So I told him, 'There are some good cops and there are some bad cops.' And then he said when he grows up he wants to be a good cop."

"Is that true?" I ask Aiden.

"Yes," Aiden replies.

"So, what you want to be when you grow up?" his dad asks.

"A good police," says the 4-year-old.

Upchurch adds that he doesn't want to have to keep doing this over and over — explaining violence and inequality to his son.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And I'm Kelly McEvers. The situation in Ferguson, Missouri is starting to calm down since the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police and the protests that followed. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon yesterday ordered the National Guard out of Ferguson. And schools will open up on Monday. Up till now they had been closed. Shereen Marisol Meraji from NPR's Code Switch team reports on how the unrest has affected kids and what adults are doing to help them feel safe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, guys. How are you? Do you want chocolate milk or white milk?

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Parents, grandparents and aunties bring their kids to get free sack lunches at the Griffith Elementary School in Ferguson. Even though school's been postponed, the district's handing out free lunches every day. Raven Pratt, Amon Stewart and Caleb Key all choose chocolate milk with their lunch. When were you supposed to start school?

AMON: Thursday.

CALEB: Monday.

RAVEN: No, we supposed to start Thursday.

MERAJI: Pratt's right. She's in third grade. So is Stewart. Caleb Key is in sixth. What do you know about what's been happening in your community? What's been going on in Ferguson?

CALEB: People acting like a fool.

MERAJI: Tell me more about that.

AMON: Well, they shooting and stuff and killing people because Michael Brown got shot by the police.

RAVEN: They've been burning places down and they've been stealing stuff.

MERAJI: Griffith Elementary is less than a mile away from the protest zone, where until recently there's been looting and nightly clashes with the cops. So for some kids, the first day of school might be more stressful than usual. Jerry Dunn coaches social workers and teachers on how to help the students through it.

JERRY DUNN: So initiate that contact. Be accessible and available to the kids.

MERAJI: Dunn's the executive director of Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis. She says dealing with the trauma begins with listening to the kids.

DUNN: Are they from that neighborhood? Have their family members - have they participated in some of the demonstrations and protests? Have their family members been arrested?

MERAJI: Maggie Vogt's here because she's a nurse and works with foster children in Ferguson. And she's noticed a change in them.

MAGGIE VOGT: Just a lot of anger and a lot of anticipation with the beginning of the school year - what's going to happen when they get back to school? Are they going to be safe getting to and from school? So just a lot of fear and, you know, mixed with anger.

MERAJI: Vogt takes home a packet with info about how to recognize when a child is in emotional distress, ways to administer psychological first aid and a list of people in the area trained on how to deal with child trauma. Demitrius Upchurch walks through the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot and killed. Upchurch is a schoolteacher and is strolling hand-in-hand with his four-year-old son Aiden.

MERAJI: He's obviously too young for you to be talking about this with him.

DEMITRIUS UPCHURCH: No. We've been talking about it because he witnessed me get attacked by cops in June.

MERAJI: Upchurch says he was standing outside of his mother's house after dropping Aiden off when an officer walked up and asked for his ID.

UPCHURCH: I don't have to give you my name. I don't have to give you anything because I'm just standing outside. And from that point on, he just grabbed me, threw me on top of the car, cuffed me, threw me on the ground, put his foot on my chest.

MERAJI: And he says his son saw everything.

UPCHURCH: So I told him there are some good cops and there are some bad cops. And then he said when he grows up he wants to be a good cop.

MERAJI: Is that true?

AIDEN: Yes.

UPCHURCH: So what you going to be when you grow up?

AIDEN: A good police.

MERAJI: Upchurch adds he doesn't want to have to keep doing this over and over - explaining violence and inequality to his son. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Ferguson, Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.