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Five years later, Kirkwood reflects on the end of its innocence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2013 - Five years have passed.  People don’t talk much about Cookie Thornton anymore. The mistrust of City Hall that some have felt has eased, but not disappeared. Meacham Park is less separate from Kirkwood, but not wholly integrated. Normalcy has crept back into city affairs, except for one key ingredient — the innocence that the people of Kirkwood lost on Feb. 7, 2008.

Gone is that feeling that it can’t happen here. Idyllic Kirkwood is etched as an improbable entry on the list of the 62 places in America where mass shootings have occurred in the past three decades.

"We really are trying to move past all of this and not talk about it a great deal," says Kirkwood Mayor Art McDonnell, as the fifth anniversary approaches of Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton’s deadly assault on City Hall that led to the death of seven city officials and to Thornton.

But all it takes is a Sandy Hook or an Aurora or a Tucson to bring it back to McDonnell.

When a mass shooter strikes another community, says McDonnell, "I realize the trauma those communities are going through …. I’m very sorry for those people and for their communities ... Many times I sent letters to those communities to express our sorrow."

Kirkwood School Superintendent Tom Williams says that the people of Kirkwood, unlike other communities, can’t kid themselves into thinking their community will be spared. 

"I think people are more aware of it," says Williams.  "People realize it could happen. If it hasn’t happened, people can have a false sense of security… In Kirkwood they know it is real."

For Don Corrigan, editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, the "false balancing" of journalistic "detachment," disappeared along with the false sense of security.  At a recent forum on gun violence and Kirkwood, Corrigan said he belongs to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence because, he thinks, journalists have an obligation to write the facts about important controversies, not just the sides.

After Sandy Hook, city officials met with school officials in the Kirkwood area. "It was a very positive meeting to help the schools to find additional solutions to making schools and the students safer," McDonnell said "There was no interest from anyone at the meeting about encouraging teachers to carry guns or have police officers in schools. Everyone thought they had other ways to deal with it."

This year, the calendar dictates that the anniversary of the shooting will fall on the night of a City council meeting. McDonnell has told city employees that they don’t need to come if they feel uncomfortable.

"I'm not going to talk about it at the council meeting until the end," he said. "I don't want to try to highlight it. At the end of the council meeting we probably will have some words and some silence."

Mediation ends

The Kirkwood City Hall shootings were entwined with race. Thornton was black; all of his victims were white.

McDonnell and other surviving city officials believe deeply that Thornton was motivated by money not race. He was in dire financial straits. But Thornton — a Kirkwood High School track star and one-time model of interracial harmony in Kirkwood as a volunteer at Tillman Elementary School — had long accused city officials of a "plantation" mentality.

Reconciliation meetings that attracted hundreds of citizens in the weeks and months after the shooting centered on white privilege and the isolation of the mostly black Meacham Park neighborhood where Thornton lived.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, the office often called into communities torn by racial divisions, arrived in Kirkwood to mediate between the community and the city. The mediation process was aimed at "perceived racial issues in the community." As part of that process, the Justice Department brought together a team of city officials with a team of community representatives.

Three years after the mediation agreement was adopted, the process has ended. Said Mayor McDonnell: "We did a great job with the mediation process." But Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, disagrees. "We were outsiders then and we’re outsiders now," she said.

Patton had requested that the mediation process be extended and sent a six-point list of concerns to Rita Valenciano in the Justice Department’s Kansas City office.

The city’s Human Rights Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the mediation process continue, as Patton requested.  But the mayor said that there was a consensus among officials that the city had accomplished everything it could.

Progress and failures

There is general agreement on some of the successes. The Human Rights Commission is stronger and has taken a more active role than before. It organized a community meeting on race relations in the fall of 2011 and another on bullying in the fall of 2012.  It took a leadership role in persuading the City Council to pass an ordinance in December expanding its anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Last spring’s Meacham Park community celebration at Kirkwood Baptist Churchwas another high point, seeming to offer hope for closer relations between the neighborhood and City Hall. The city lent its support, McDonnell participated and Patton spoke about looking ahead rather that back.

But Patton said she felt like she ran into a "brick wall" after that, when the city wouldn’t extend the mediation.

Patton wanted the city to set up a police review board to consider complaints against police officers, but the city responded that its process worked well.

"It is an important point to remember," the city said in its rejection, "that our situation differs greatly from other cities where the DOJ is called in to mediate between a city’s police department and community in the wake of highly publicized incidents of excessive use of force on the part of the police department.  In our case, since 2005, three police officers, the public works director, two council members and the mayor were murdered, yet the Kirkwood police department has continued to perform in a professional manner."

A centerpiece of the mediation agreement — Police Chief Jack Plummer’s "youth-peer" court — is the biggest failure of the mediation process. The ambitious idea was to establish a local court, sanctioned by the Family Court and administered by the chief, to provide a partnership with area youth in the administration of justice in minor cases involving their peers.

The court was supposed to be in place two years ago, but the city decided the proposal was "too ambitious and requires more resources to implement than the police department has."

Little progress in hiring

Kirkwood says in its report on progress under the mediation agreement that it is "very serious about hiring qualified personnel without regard to race." As of last August, 37 of 257 full-time city employees were African American. The police department has five full-time African Americans out of 70.

At the request of the Beacon, the city provided the figures for five years earlier.  They were almost identical: 34 of 240 full-time employees were African-American, and four of the 63 police were minority employees.

The city explained that "our record was good compared to the city’s population, and that it was our intention and commitment to keep it that way." The 14 percent rate of African-Americans on the city payroll is twice the percentage of Kirkwood's African-American residents.

The Kirkwood public schools, which encompass municipalities outside of Kirkwood, were not included in the mediation agreement.  But the relatively low percentage of African-American teachers in the district has been a focus of criticism.

Sarah Heuermann, one of the winners in the annual human rights essay contest, wrote that students at Kirkwood High School "are deprived of seeing a diverse group of teachers." Heuermann looked through old yearbooks discovering the number of African-American teachers has declined.

"If there is a continuance of 'separate but equal' segregation in Kirkwood, many citizens will never learn how to live and get along with other races," she added.

Currently, Kirkwood High School has two African-American teachers out of 118, and none teaches an academic subject. Across the district, there are 19 African-American teachers out of 392. Those numbers are the same as two years ago at the high school and down from the 22 African-American teachers throughout the district two years ago. The student body in the Kirkwood schools is 17 percent minority.

Superintendent Williams readily acknowledges the district’s performance is "not as good as we should. Our numbers are not real good. We have been working extremely hard trying to recruit and attract new applicants. It is a challenge. There is a limited number of African-American applicants and we are all vying for the same people."

Williams says he has organized a minority hiring fair for February and is working on establishing a club at Kirkwood High School to encourage the school’s black students to go into teaching and come back to Kirkwood.

Williams is popular in Meacham Park. Patton is high on him for his responsiveness and the frequency of his trips to the neighborhood.  Williams’ son, Nate, who just graduated, had good friends from the football team and spent a lot of time in the neighborhood.

“He’d go down there and he never mentioned Cookie Thornton, never mentioned the city hall shooting, never mentioned racial issues. He never sensed any racial tension in the time he was in high school," Williams said.

Williams is proud of the graduation rate for African-American students, which stands at 95 percent, just below the white graduation rate. In some recent years, the graduation rate for African-American students was higher than that of white student.

One major player in the Cookie Thornton saga is gone from Kirkwood — former principal Franklin S. McCallie. He and his wife, Tresa, moved back to their native Chattanooga, Tenn., last year.

McCallie had known Thornton well and had tried to mediate between Thornton and city officials. After the shootings, he was a leader of the reconciliation groups.

He wrote this in an email:  "Not a week passes that I don't think about our tragedy in Kirkwood. When national tragedies are not reminding me, I am still remembering friends we lost and the heartache their families endure today.

"I continue to think the same that I thought immediately after the tragedy: This terrible event could have been avoided. But the critical intervention was needed years before the act.

"It always benefits communities when citizens and civic leaders make a promise to themselves to establish and participate in a community culture which is inclusive of all residents. It follows that when disagreements arise over promises made or not made, and wrongs corrected or not, then voices of understanding and reconciliation will be raised emphatically to clear up misunderstandings and find fair and just solutions.

"The terrible devastation of life on the night of Feb. 7, 2008 demands that none of us allows a series of events which caused this to happen again."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.