Mother nature threw everything she had to disrupt the makeup commencement ceremonies set for this weekend, but fate preserved a final summer reunion for local high school graduates.
An overnight Friday-Saturday thunderstorm — wind gusts as high as 80 mph and steady rainfall thereafter — wreaked havoc, but it could not put down the Class of 2020. As St. Joseph assessed the damage, the new alumni of Benton, Central and Lafayette high schools gathered simultaneously at three different outdoor locations, to enable as much social distancing as possible. The district committed to the makeup events, which it has tentatively planned since the spring, after Gov. Mike Parson lifted all statewide restrictions earlier this month.
The Irish leagued up at Krug Park. The Central Indians gathered at Spratt Memorial Stadium at Missouri Western State University. The Cardinals found themselves at home at Sparks Field for one last flight. Altogether the graduates were left proud of what they had been through together, while also sad to say their final goodbyes.
“But, we really made good memories, and I’m just proud of us for pulling together and making it a really good time,” said Rylee Alden, Lafayette valedictorian. “And everybody’s going to do cool things. I’m just excited to see people’s names in the paper in a couple of years. It’ll be like, ‘This person went off and did this thing!’ I just know 2020 is gonna be a really good class.”
It is, altogether, a class like none other. Ask anyone what they remember most about high school, and you’ll often hear stories of senior prom, the last spring break vacation, that last team shot at a title, perhaps. These kids got none of that, because of COVID-19.
Central class president Cruz Becerra said it was about keeping your spirits up.
“Guys, just hang in there,” he said, reflecting on what he wants to say to those among his classmates who have struggled in this time. “Keep it up. Like, it’s hard for all of us, but I know we could get through it. If we just stick together. Just, keep talking to your friends, try to reach out to someone if you can. It’s just a hard time, so the more we can do for each other, the better.”
For many, now will at long last be the time to part ways, going to different colleges or trade schools all around the country, with a hopeful view of the future in spite of challenges of the like young people have not faced for some one hundred years. Mario Alejandro Oliva-Lima intends to venture to Miami, Florida, for future studies in biochemistry.
“I really love my senior class, and I cannot picture like any other class,” he said. “I made so many good friends. Any time I was stressed they always had my back. Like, I really don’t even care about this virus. I don’t mind it at all.”
Central High School is a quiet place in the summer.
A visitor observes no students or teachers in the empty hallways. When the bustle of school activity resumes, the American Civil Liberties Union would like something else to be absent: police officers.
The organization’s Missouri chapter sent a letter to districts asking that school resource officers, known as SROs, be removed from schools amid a national re-evaluation of police policies. The ACLU of Missouri argues that a police presence enables negative interactions with minority students and that the money is better spent on counselors and social workers.
“The presence of SROs puts specific students at risk for falling into the school-to-prison pipeline and does not improve educational outcomes or public safety,” Luz María Henríquez, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, wrote in the letter.
That assessment is strongly disputed in St. Joseph, where voters in 2019 supported a 61-cent levy extension that included funding to add school resource officers, with the cost shared between the police and the school district. By the end of 2021, the St. Joseph School District expects to have an SRO in all three public high schools, all four middle schools and the alternative school. Another officer rotates among all the grade schools.
These officers aren’t necessarily there to make arrests, said Dr. Robert Sigrist, director of non-academic support and student services for the SJSD.
“There is a relationship piece and a mentoring piece that goes on,” Sigrist said. “School resource officers are not involved in discipline. They are not there to enforce school rules. We enforce school rules.”
Data from the St. Joseph Police Department shows that resource officers responded to 2,301 incidents during the 2019-20 school year, with 311 of those cases resulting in an arrest.
Sgt. James Langston, who oversees the SRO unit for the police department, said the only actual arrests would be for assault, drug possession or when a student is out of control and a parent cannot be located. The majority of the cases result in a juvenile referral, which Langston compared to a speeding ticket for an adult.
“It is interesting and noteworthy that our SROs responded to 1,990 incidents where an arrest was not made,” Langston said. “SROs were able to de-escalate the situation, which allowed the student to return to class.”
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tracks discipline incidents by school districts, although those are cases that might not involve police or arrest. DESE’s 2019 report, the latest available, recorded 166 incidents for the St. Joseph School District, including 47 for drugs, 16 for alcohol and seven involving a weapon.
Discipline and enforcement are only part of the equation for an SRO. Langston said a resource officer spends much of the school day walking the halls, talking to students and getting to know them. During the COVID-19 shutdown, one officer went to students’ homes to check on them.
“It’s good to see the human side of officers and get to know us,” Langston said. “All too often, on the streets, the only time someone sees the police is when they are having the very worst day of their life.”
The expansion of resource officers into middle schools is significant, Langston said, because that’s the age when some students start to engage in riskier behavior. He believes officers can play an essential role in getting those younger students on the right path.
“That’s the tipping point where they can make good choices or bad choices that affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
He said the overriding goal remains safety and security inside the school. The presence of an officer can have an impact sort of like a patrol car parked on the side of the highway. Just as motorists ease up on the gas when they see a police car, most students behave a little better when they know a uniformed officer is present.
But it’s not the everyday incidents but the mass shootings that have fueled an interest in SROs. Following the deadly school massacre in Parkland, Florida, the Missouri Governor’s School Safety Task Force recommended an armed resource officer in every school where it was economically feasible and supported by the local population.
Those concerns haven’t gone away.
“It’s always been one of those things where you don’t need it until you need it,” Sigrist said.
No one doubted the electoral optimism of Ferd J. Frankenhoff.
A minor league ballplayer and bread truck driver, Frankenhoff attended night classes at St. Joseph Law School, passed the bar exam and became police judge in the city in 1928.
Defendants loved the guy. He had a penchant for leniency and made national headlines by assessing 10-cent fines for illegal possession of alcohol during the waning days of Prohibition. In 1940, the St. Joseph judge ran as a Democrat for Missouri governor.
Underfunded but enthusiastic, Frankenhoff campaigned on a platform of paying older citizens $40 a month. He visited every county in Missouri and predicted the night before the August primary, in a rally at Patee Park, that he would win by 100,000 votes.
The next day, the judge got 64,992 votes, roughly a quarter-million votes behind the Democratic nominee Lawrence McDaniel.
Other than news stories, scant evidence of Frankenhoff’s campaign can be found in archived copies of this newspaper and its sister publication in those days, the St. Joseph Gazette. That’s despite the fact that newspapers in 1940 had almost no competition in running national, state and local political advertising.
“No television in those days, of course, and radio was not that popular for advertising,” said Bob Slater, a former St. Joseph newspaperman and long-time observer of local politics.
In its 175 years of publication, the St. Joseph News-Press and other newspapers in its lineage have been in business for 43 presidential campaigns, including the one this year.
During that time, they have run countless ads for candidates and propositions. And while the media have changed over the course of decades, an examination of many of those long-ago ads shows common threads with the issues of today.
One such campaign, broadly discussed of late, took place in 1968, when former Vice President Richard Nixon ran for the White House in the midst of turmoil over race relations and the Vietnam War.
“It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States,” Nixon voiced over televised images of demonstrators in American streets. “In a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence.”
His “Law and Order” slogan appeared on Nixon campaign buttons. During his first year as president, he would give a speech asking for the “silent majority” of Americans to support him in his goals.
Leap ahead more than a half-century and find President Donald Trump, dealing with discontented masses taking to the streets, tweeting about “Law and Order” and talking about a “silent majority.”
Of course, no political party can corner this market.
Democrat Forrest Smith ran an ad in the News-Press in 1948 promising “Strict Law Enforcement.” He won. In 1968, an ad touting the re-election of state Attorney General Norman Anderson, a Democrat, urged voters to “Keep Law and Order in Missouri.” He lost to Republican John Danforth.
“I expect everybody is always going to be in favor of law and order,” Slater said. “The arguments for law and order and efficiency and better use of tax money are probably dating back to the early days of the republic. ... The goals remain elusive.”
TAX, TAX, TAX
Years do not dampen certain campaign tropes. Trump won in 2016 with promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington inefficiency and corruption. An Alf Landon campaign ad in the News-Press in 1936 contained a pledge to “reduce the cost of government (and) eliminate useless jobs.”
When Thomas Dewey ran for president against Missourian Harry Truman in 1948, his ad in the local newspaper bore the bold-faced line, “For years it’s been nothing but TAX, TAX, TAX.”
Missouri, with its extensive road and bridge system, has needed taxpayer approval over the years for improvement funds. Fortunately, not any today carry the urgency of a 1928 ad that urged voters to “Abolish the Mud Tax” and authorize a road bond amendment.
That same year, Henry Frans, seeking a new term as judge of the Buchanan County Court, boasted the county government “has graded, oiled and paved more roads” than any other in the state.
“Keep your hands clean”
Yet some issues in 2020 remain unique to the times. Dr. Patrick Meirick of the University of Oklahoma, one of the nation’s leading scholars on campaign advertising, said polling shows the top issues for Americans as coronavirus, racial justice, economy and leadership.
“In most moments in history, if you had double-digit unemployment, you would think economy would be the most important issue by far,” Meirick told the News-Press.
“But it’s kind of in a four-way tie right now with those other three issues. And the other thing that is interesting about this is that I think the public understands why the economy is not doing well, and it’s because of the coronavirus.”
The communications professor said one difference this year has been the volume and tenor of third-party ads not constructed for television but for social media. Inevitably, these spots, not technically tied to campaigns, get broad viewing online but also on political news shows.
Last week, a super PAC called Committee to Defend the President launched ads about the mental health of Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. A group called The Lincoln Project has produced similar content about the physical and mental capacities of Trump.
“You’ve kind of outsourced that, keep your hands clean,” Meirick said. “It’s striking to me that we’re seeing that come up. I suppose it makes sense because these are the two oldest nominees that we’ve seen for a major party. But usually campaigns don’t go there.”