Blog | April 6, 2017

How a Struggling School District in Mississippi is Tackling School Discipline Reform

In the Mississippi Delta, a school district has developed a pilot program that positively addresses youth of color

About an hour and half north of Jackson lies the Mississippi Delta. There, the Sunflower County Consolidated School District has taken a bold move and innovative approach toward improving the way educators and community members perceive and interact with young men and boys of color.

Partnering with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the ACLU of Mississippi, the Sunflower County Systems Change Project has developed a pilot program that addresses the systems that negatively impact young men and boys of color. Its Advisory Council comprises school resource officers, teachers, counselors, and parents.

For the past year, the Advisory Council has examined best practices and school models from Oakland, California to Miami, Florida. Miami-Dade County School District eliminated out-of-school suspensions (OSS) and instead provides success centers, facilities that are meant to provide support and additional attention to students who would otherwise be expelled. However, after closer inspection, these success centers are still struggling to make this model work. On the other hand, Broward County School District has injected millions of dollars to support its students by providing supports such as daycare for teen moms, on-site washing machines for families, and health clinics for students and parents.

Our goal is to change the mindset of how school officials interact with kids, especially young men and boys of color.

Kimberly Merchant, Sunflower County Systems Change Project

One of the Advisory Council members is Kimberly Merchant, Managing Attorney of the Delta Office, Director of Educational Opportunities at the Mississippi Center for Justice and school board member in her local community. When talking about the innovative Broward County program, she wryly noted, “Obviously, Sunflower County Consolidated School District doesn’t have the resources to provide washing machines to students and families. So we asked ourselves: What can we scale down? What’s realistic?”

So, last year, the Advisory Council started by reviewing, assessing and revising the school handbook. The first thing to go? The zero-tolerance school discipline policies, which included minor infractions (skipping class) that would result in an out-of-school suspension (OSS). Using New Orleans’ Center for Restorative Approaches, they introduced the idea of restorative justice and students performing community service. Also, they now have an official agreement between the school district and local law enforcement to ensure that police will not come on campus, unless a school resource officer (SRO) calls, and for only three instances: bodily harm, weapons, or drugs.

“Our goal is to change the mindset of how school officials interact with kids. It’s not just teaching. You cannot educate if you don’t know these kids and if you don’t understand where they’re coming from,” says Merchant. “So teachers are getting to know their students by implementing community circles that provide an opportunity for teachers and students to know you each other on a deeper level. The teachers love it, and it has garnered respect from the students.”

But Merchant acknowledges the uphill battle her home state faces. There are ongoing challenges with school funding. “Every year for the past four years, they have been chipping away at public school funding. There are fewer highly qualified teachers to go around. As someone who sits on the school board, and is involved in the school system, I’m not sure what the solution is. The system is not set up for these schools to succeed, but they’re being held accountable for it.”

Despite having to navigate through rough terrain, dedicated people like Kimberly Merchant and Dr. Willie Killins, Jr. are working tirelessly to learn from the pockets of innovation around the country, and applying their unique take on what will work to improve their schools in Mississippi.

Read more

Interview with Dr. Willie Killins, Jr

NEXT: A School Discipline Primer for Parents

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