Local Organization Works to Eliminate Racial Discrimination in School Discipline


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By Kylie Kirkpatrick, Excalibur Yearbook Staffer

It’s a sunny Saturday in November of 2014 and for the first time ever a few members of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel are holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” at the intersection of Boone’s Crossing and Chesterfield Airport Road in Chesterfield, Missouri.

This first vigil was the birth of an organization called West County Community Action Network (WE CAN). WE CAN emerged from the response to the events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. They are an organization working to address systemic racism in West County Policing and the disproportionate disciplining of black and brown youth in West County schools.

“My personal goal at the start of the organization was to support the Black movement in West County by increasing awareness,” Lauren Lyerla, one of the founding members of WE CAN, said.

One of the teams in the WE CAN organization is A Solid, Stay-in-School Team (ASSIST). The ASSIST team works towards ending racial disparity and the suspension of students in kindergarten through third grade (K-3). So far, this team has read statements to three school boards-Parkway, Rockwood, and Pattonville. They all agreed something needs to be done about suspensions and are working with the ASSIST team and WE CAN to solve the issues.

“It’s very heartening to see that people are willing to talk to us and wanting to change. This team has definitely raised awareness, and started conversations, about the issues in West County,” Joy Weese Moll, co-facilitator of ASSIST said.

Right now, the ASSIST team is planning and getting out the word for a regional meeting for Saint Louis superintendents on Nov. 13. This meeting will celebrate the banishing of racial disparities of K-3 suspensions. ASSIST has been working on promoting this meeting and setting up meetings with school administrations to ask superintendents to come.

“My favorite accomplishment so far was the first school board meeting at Parkway because it was such a big step for us and it felt like it took forever to get to that point,” Madhav Narayan, co-facilitator of ASSIST, said.

Another team in the organization is the policing group. This group in WE CAN started in June of 2015. They have worked on addressing systemic racism in West County Policing by pushing for reform in the Chesterfield Police Department’s policies and practices as well as Ellisville, Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights Police Departments.

They pushed for bias training within the department and recommended a program called Fair and Impartial Policing by Dr. Lorie Fridell. This program focuses on implementing unbiased responses to override automatic biased associations.

Chesterfield decided to bring the program in for a train-the-trainer program this past May. It was attended by folks from several local departments as well as other states, so now four members of the CPD are trained to give this training to others,” Lyerla said.

Currently the policing group is working on getting different police departments to evaluate themselves on the Progress Report that has been designed by the Metropolitan Congregations United. This organization is a community of religious congregations in the St. Louis area that are working to create a better life for all residents.

“We also arranged for a meeting with CPD chief and a few legislators in the hopes of advancing the state toward statewide guidelines or even regulations on the use of body cameras,” Lyerla said.

The WE CAN vigils are still going on today. They are held every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in four different locations around Chesterfield. At these vigils, they express the “Black Lives Matter” message.

“My favorite moment from a vigil was when a school bus of black kids drove by us standing on the side of the road and went nuts and it was awesome,” Lyerla said.

WE CAN is a growing organization in the community. Meetings are every fourth Saturday of the month from 12:45-2 p.m. following the vigil that day. These meetings are in the community room at Lucky’s Market in Ellisville.

“When I went to my first meeting, I loved the diversity of the members and the fact that WE CAN is drawing attention to and addressing extremely important issues that have been unchallenged for way too long,” Melissa Grizzle, visitor at a WE CAN meeting, said.