CAMBRIDGE — Students at Harvard Law School, joining their counterparts at a pair of other leading universities, have asked that final exams be postponed for students who have been “traumatized” by two recent grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York, and who have focused their energies on protesting racial injustice.
“Unless you act now, you will allow the systematic underperformance of a great many students of color and allies on this campus on their exams,” a student coalition wrote in a letter Monday to law school administrators. “We cannot walk away from our pain, and we cannot ignore our call to act against the injustice that threatens our families and our commitment to the justice system.”
Law students at Columbia and Georgetown universities have made similar requests in light of the nationwide protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., and the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man on Staten Island. In both deaths, grand juries decided not to indict white police officers, sparking national protests.
The Harvard coalition, which includes a range of minority student groups, said the law school delayed exams in 1970 for students who participated in protests against the Vietnam War, and has policies in place for students who have personal emergencies that interfere with exams.
“This is more than a personal emergency,” the students wrote. “This is a national emergency.”
Students petitioned law school officials for the “opportunity to reschedule their exams in good faith and at their own discretion.”
A spokesman for the law school said Wednesday that a longstanding exam deferral policy allows for “individualized consideration” of any request.
“Our staff is available to consider all such requests and, more importantly, to provide students with the support they need,” said spokesman Robb London.
Administrators have also provided students options for counseling and general support.
On the Harvard law campus Wednesday, several Harvard students voiced support for extensions, saying people who had devoted significant time to civic activism deserved extra time to prepare.
“It’s being sensitive to the times,” said Martin Njoroge, a first-year student. “There will still be time for finals.”
Njoroge said that law students are understandably moved to protest against what they see as racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
“We’re supposed to be learning about justice,” he said.
But others were dismissive, echoing commentators who have mocked the requests as an absurd — and convenient — overreaction.
“Gimme a break,” said one student. “Extensions are for students who have a death in the family, not because they have spent too much time marching in rallies.”
The student asked to remain anonymous, saying his opinion would not be well-received on campus.
Other students said they doubted that anyone would exploit the situation unnecessarily. Many students had exams Wednesday, and said they had been too busy studying to follow the debate.
“I’m just plowing ahead,” said one student.
“I have an exam right now!” said another, as she hurried through the rain.
Columbia Law School last week said it would grant extensions to students affected by recent events. In a letter to faculty and administrators, the Columbia Law School Coalition of Concerned Students of Color wrote that “recent events have unsettled our lives as students.”
At Georgetown University, a coalition of students of color also demanded exam extensions, saying they had been “deeply affected, critically active, and emotionally damaged by these events.”
The grand jury decisions have galvanized college students, and earlier this month, hundreds of students and community members protested in Harvard Square, and some staged a die-in by laying in the street.
On Wednesday, students at Harvard Medical School staged a similar protest, as dozens and students were joined by faculty and staff in a 15½-minute-long die-in at the school’s Boston campus.
The demonstration was part of a national campaign by medical students against the grand jury decisions.
Nancy Oriol, the dean for students, said she and medical school dean Jeffrey Scott Flier addressed the gathering of about 100 students after speeches from several students.
The students — mostly first- and second-year students — then lay down, covering the floor of the atrium. The students stayed on the floor for 15½ minutes: 4½ to represent the number of hours Brown’s body lay on the ground, and an additional 11 minutes to represent the 11 times Garner, the man killed in New York, told police he could not breathe before he suffocated.
• Thousands protest Eric Garner case in downtown Boston
• Hundreds of protesters take to Somerville, Cambridge streets
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.