The first bell rang throughout an entire school in a state of nervous anticipation. Most everyone in the building knew something was going to happen during third period, but few, I suspect, knew exactly why it had all come to this.
On May 6, three days after at , a horde of high school students walked out of class during third period and congregated at the front of the school. Teachers and staff stood watching, the vast majority physically distant enough to avoid overtly communicating support for the students’ protest.
After vocally expressing their respect for Horrell and their frustration with school administration, the students did what many committed protestors would: they ignored calls to stop—even those uttered by Horrell—and pushed their demonstration to another level. The student congregation marched away from the school to the football field a couple of blocks away.
The students felt betrayed by their school and frustrated by the lack of explanation for why one of their most beloved teachers and coaches was being punished. They felt they had no other recourse than to rebel. So they walked out, and just kept walking. Only their backpacks were left behind, abandoned, on the grass field in front of the school.
When I was a student at Clayton, I also participated in a school walkout. Ours was in response to the administration’s discussion of ending participation in the Voluntary Student Transfer Program. By undertaking the protest, we aimed to show how much the high school benefited from the desegregation initiative we sought to protect.
Our walkout was not a rebellion against school administration or policies. It was a celebration of the community we wished to preserve that culminated in hundreds of students linking hands in a circle of inclusiveness. It was a stand for an integrated dream that has yet to be fully realized and a future for which we were willing to sacrifice. It was an extension of our education as members of the .
The May 6 protest, on the other hand, was born from chaos. It was a product of dissatisfaction, dominated by misinformation. It was the outgrowth of a poor message fed to an intelligent community. And, to the credit of the Clayton schools and community, these students took a peaceful, coordinated stand against what they considered to be unjust.
Horrell was dismissed from the head coaching position May 3 for reasons not immediately made available to the public. In the information vacuum, rumors grew unchecked. Perhaps the most often told story held that Horrell conducted weightlifting sessions with eighth-grade students from in violation of Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) guidelines. Jake Brown was supposedly one of these eighth-grade students, and his name rapidly spread through the grapevine.
Was Horrell weightlifting with Brown? Was he feeding a future Clayton Greyhound quarterback passing plays Brown might one day run? Was the head coach of a high school football team already mounting the hopes and dreams of his program onto the shoulders of a middle school student?
Turns out, the exaggerated rumors were just that: exaggerated. The high school administration had video evidence of what Horrell was doing with a handful of middle school students. Horrell wasn’t spotting them while they were powerlifting. They weren’t memorizing plays drawn up on a chalkboard.
The tapes, Principal Louise Losos of Clayton High said, show Horrell providing instruction to a group of teenagers on how to run general conditioning drills. Most of these teenagers were high school students. A few of the participants were in the eighth grade.
These drills took place on basketball courts outside the weight room at , a gym facility connected to Clayton High that serves as a community recreational center.
Brown, a member of the Center of Clayton who frequently worked out there after school in January and February, said the middle school students didn’t do much of anything with Horrell. A lot of that had to do with Horrell’s absence by the time the middle school students arrived at the gym.
“I only saw Horrell about three times through the whole two months I was there,” Brown said.
Brown also didn’t feel confident working with the bigger and more experienced high school students. The middle school students spent almost all of their time at the gym working out on their own or playing basketball.
Brown said that sometimes the middle school students participated in group activities with the high school students. Little did Brown know that many of these high school students were enrolled in an after-school physical education class. Horrell and other Clayton staff served as instructors of that course.
But in the initial aftermath of Horrell’s dismissal, these details were never made clear. So rumors emerged to explain the drastic termination of a high school football coach, including all the scenarios that one might find on an episode of Dateline. The only saving grace for Horrell in this whole mess was that he was still retained as a physical education teacher at the school.
Horrell’s football coaching job was gone, and now his reputation was under fire. Whether he knew it or not, his best chance at redemption would come thanks to the hard work of a group of teenagers.
In the dark recesses of the Internet, Facebook-savvy kids were organizing in Horrell’s favor. By May 5, the call to “Bring Back Coach Horrell” was being echoed by hundreds of members of the online social network.
Editor's note: Part 2 of this four-part series will be published Thursday.