The SNO Report: Students Covering St. Louis Protests

On the morning of Sept. 15, former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of first-degree murder charges stemming from a 2011 high-speed chase that resulted in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Shades of the 2014 incident in Ferguson, Mo., which also was sparked by a white officer’s acquittal of the death of a black man, the Sept. 15 verdict got the St. Louis community’s blood boiling again — a feeling that penetrated school walls. Student journalists were there to cover what happened next.

These are their stories…

Nick Einig had every reason to be happy. He knew there was a school assembly scheduled the morning of Sept. 15, a Friday, and he knew it was going to be a rewarding one.

De Smet Jesuit High School had reached its fundraising goal, so the school would be granting its students an additional day off as a thank you.

That was the planned announcement. The students were excited for it. It was an “uplifting and happy kind of atmosphere,” Einig said.

Then, the school’s president stood up to speak and a hush came over the crowd. That wasn’t planned, but, behind the scenes, faculty and staff had been monitoring the trial for a while and sensed a verdict was coming down the pike that day. When it did, faculty and staff, like Kevin Berns, adviser to The Mirror, De Smet Jesuit’s student newspaper, took a “very serious” approach to the assembly, compared to the students.

“The whole issue of race relations in St. Louis and even in our school … there’s a growing need to understand a relate to all parts of our school population,” Berns said. “That gave the school an opportunity to take a step back and just talk. We weren’t judging. We weren’t coming to a conclusion. We were trying to be proactive and say, ‘Look, this is what’s going on. Let’s talk about it.’ ”

So, talk they did. The assembly broke out into smaller, grade-level groups for more personal conversations about what happened. Knowing the schedule of those meetings, Berns told Einig where he could possibly go and when.

Einig was reluctant to take the story assignment at first.

“I knew it had to be done, so I took it,” Einig said. “So I stepped into some of these meetings. The kids that were speaking, they talked about how their morning was and it seemed like it really affected them in a bad way. … said things like, ‘My parents were crying in the morning,’ or, ‘I considered not coming to school.’ ”

 From there, Einig pinpointed possible interviewees. He ran into some resistance on approach.
“To some students, I was told to screw off, ‘Why are you even doing this?’ and talking to teachers about this and told to go somewhere else,” Einig said.

Even with those who agreed to be interviewed, Einig sensed some uneasiness. It was clear, he said, people were treading lightly, trying to avoid saying something irresponsible.

Einig had the story published online later that same day, with the headline “Students react to verdict in Stockley trial.” And a reactionary story was exactly what his story became. He wanted to write a simple reaction story — here’s what happened, here’s what people are saying about it. It hit. Online, Einig said it had almost six times as many views as the staff’s average.

“It was a topic that people cared about,” Einig said.

Then, the staff talked about what to do next.

“Nick even said, ‘Should we go downtown? Should we get into the protests?’,” Berns said. “We know some other schools around town did. I was a little hesitant to throw guys into that. Some would argue that’s real life, a good experience to do. I didn’t feel like we had a clear enough reason from our school perspective to get involved. The protests were 30 minutes away from us. We didn’t have much connection.”

The feeling was different at Clayton High School.

There, The Globe staff was in a heat of a print deadline week, but reporter Noah Brown and photographer Michael Melinger wanted to go see what was happening downtown.

They drove to the epicenter after school and “walked around for 30 minutes around downtown, when the protests started,” Brown said.

“We get down there and we’re walking and walking,” Melinger said. “We finally walk up there and you’ve got cops on both sides, protests in the middle. It really escalated right from that point. We saw it when it was calm and then when it got out of hand.”

Although Melinger brought his camera along, there was no real plan to cover the protests. But after seeing what was going on, plans had to change.

“We had our issue sketched out and planned,” Brown said.

The Globe adviser Erin Castellano said, “We didn’t really exactly know what they’d come back with. At least photos we’d run in some capacity. I wasn’t sure what or who they’d be able to talk to and what kind of sources they’d get.”

Added Brown: “I went home like, ‘I have no clue how I’m going to write this.’ We did no formal interviews while I was down there — just observed what was going on.”

Noah followed up. He and Michael returned the next day to the Central West End neighborhood, where protests had reached the night before. They went to the mayor’s house, which had been vandalized, and then they started talking to local business owners and other people in the area.

“That’s when we knew there was a story to be told here,” Brown said. “We made space in the paper and published it late Saturday night.”

Brown was a freshman when senior reporters of The Globe staff covered the protests in Ferguson. He learned from watching them do it, and this became his Ferguson.

“These are stories that we can tell,” Brown said. “We talked to Clayton students that were very involved in the protests and even got arrested on one of the nights. This stuff can hit closer to home than we realize.”

The protests in Ferguson, in 2014, became a big part of the reporting done by Richard Pfeifer for The Kirkwood Call at Kirkwood High School.

Pfeifer got a CNN alert on his phone during his second-hour class, which said what the verdict was. No more than a minute later, Pfeifer texted his editors, asking to do the reaction story.

“I remember the rest of that period, I was restless,” Pfeifer said. “I started typing up a brief for it. I didn’t go to my third-hour (class).”

Checking his Instagram that night, Pfeifer saw something going around that called for a student walkout, much like one from 2014.

Pfeifer, who is in his first year on staff, talked to the classmates he knew were leading the walkout and the school’s principal to get his reaction to the students’ plan. On Sept. 18, his story went up online.

“The editors were super involved with trying to coach me how to cover a big thing like this,” Pfeifer said. “This was my first really big, big thing.”

Click to read the students’ stories below: