Hazelwood, Missouri—On the afternoon of May 18, a delivery man carrying a stack of pizza boxes dropped off lunch for a few dozen high-school students gathered outside Hazelwood Central High School. Class was in session, but they weren’t attending. It was the fourth day in a row that students across the district, suspended from school for walking out of class that Monday, returned to their protest sites to rally for Hazelwood teachers, whose contract negotiations had recently come to a standstill.
The pizzas were ordered by the teachers of Hazelwood Central. Careful not to collect the money during work hours, they had raised $200 for the student protesters’ lunch on their own time. Diane Livingston, president of the teachers’ union, visited the students that afternoon. “I just wanted to see how they were doing,” she said.
Although most of the students had received suspensions—some for “disruptive” or “dangerous” behavior—they continued to show up to protest daily. A few students, including junior Kyleah Brady, had been pulled out of class and suspended based on security-camera footage showing her at the protest the day before. She was given five days of out-of-school suspension with only six days of school left. “That means I’ll miss my finals,” Brady said. Following her suspension, she walked directly from the administration building to the protest.
Before Monday, May 15, the Hazelwood School Board had refused to negotiate with the teachers’ union for better pay. According to Hazelwood West junior Zoë Wells, students began asking about the negotiation process during class the week before, prompting their teachers to explain: The school refused to negotiate, so they were at a stalemate. The next step for unions is usually to protest, but that would be impossible under state law—they’d be fired for it.
So the students walked out for them.
It started at Hazelwood West High School, where students used Snapchat to spread plans for the walkout to students at Hazelwood Central. Central students then Snapped the plans to their friends at other schools in the district. In this way, and through text messages, the news went around: On Monday, walk out of class.
Over 100 students walked out of their respective schools that day to stand just outside school property, chanting and holding signs demanding a better contract for their teachers. After about 20 minutes, school administrators told students to come back inside. They refused. Hazelwood West sophomore Ishmaiah Moore said that, contrary to what administrators claimed, the protests were not dangerous, and if they were disruptive, then that had been the point. “The whole purpose of a protest is to be heard and to be seen,” he said. “So we were chanting and being loud, deliberately,” but otherwise the protest, to many students and teachers, did not warrant the 200 suspensions issued over the course of the week.
“No one was violating students’ First Amendment rights,” said Kimberly McKenzie, director of communications and marketing for the Hazelwood school district. “It was just the way they went about it. They said it was peaceful protest, but it was far from it. We have security staff that say they [the students] were using profanity; they were saying, ‘F-this, f-that’ to just everyone. Flipping the bird to the administrators because they didn’t want to return to the building.”