A student does homework at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an after-school program in the delta. RORY DOYLE FOR MEDIUM/BRIGHT
After class, she explains, “It’s not violence or anything like that. It’s mostly being-a-kid stuff, and also a lot of complaining—they’re not used to being expected to work bell-to-bell and really achieve. Some of them have a kind of ‘woe is me’ attitude.”
As Tamaria, one of Stukes’s students, puts it, “My classmates, they always want attention. They always be playing while the teacher is talking. I feel like part of the reason everyone is so behind is because we waste so much time.”
Many administrators throughout the state agree but have little money to throw at the problem—to hire counselors, psychologists, tutors, special education teachers, or teachers qualified to do more than “guard” the students during detention. The state legislature regularly votes against full funding for the public schools, and in early November, voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative to force lawmakers to do so.
And because so few qualified teachers want to take low-paying, nonunionized jobs in rural towns, many classrooms are staffed by noncertified, retired, or beginner teachers who are in basic survival mode.
“Paddling and in-school detention, it’s a short-term, low-energy solution to all of that,” says Jeremiah Smith, who helps run the Sunflower County Freedom Project, which offers after-school classes to kids in the central delta.
Carl Lucas, the algebra teacher and basketball coach at Simmons High School in Hollandale, in the southwest part of the delta, explains that these practices are highly traditional and provide an efficient and reliable alternative to out-of-school suspensions. “The parents, they almost all support it,” he says, “and the children respond to it. It’s what we have that works.”
Unlike in the delta, teachers in Jackson don’t have that option. Corporal punishment has been prohibited here since 1991. Cedrick Gray, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, has repeatedly instructed schools around the city to reduce their reliance on suspensions. The police department is no longer regularly called to disrupt fights and keep order. Teachers say they are shamed for referring kids out of class too often.
“I agree suspending so many kids raised the chances of their dropping out, getting involved with the police,” says Lynn Schneider, a 14-year veteran high school English teacher in the school district. “But we’ve gone the opposite direction—discipline has fallen apart.”
A paddle used for disciplining students during gym class at D.M. Smith Middle School in Cleveland, Miss. RORY DOYLE FOR MEDIUM/BRIGHT
Cities including Boston, Denver, Portland, OR, and Oakland, CA, have successfully responded to federal demands to reduce suspensions. They also have the money to purchase prizes—candy, pens, T-shirts—and other incentives for good behavior or to implement “restorative justice” programs, which often require hiring a full-time coordinator. (In restorative justice programs, students learn about the consequences of their misbehavior. A student who vandalizes a classroom works with the janitor to clean it up; students who get in a fight meet with a professional mediator.) In Jackson, schools have funds to offer positive rewards only once a month. And Superintendent Gray says that grant money for restorative justice has yet to arrive.
In a recent survey by the Jackson teachers’ union, two-thirds of respondents said their classroom feels “out of control” on a daily or weekly basis, 60 percent said they have been physically assaulted, and 46 percent said they are considering leaving their job or even profession because of the mayhem. Crucially, 62 percent said they saw no good alternatives to suspension, expulsion, and police involvement for students who act out.
“We absolutely wish we could use corporal punishment—that would be what works,” says one language arts teacher who did not want to be named. “If we don’t use real force, the transfer of power happens in an instant.”
n a typically muggy Wednesday in October, students who have recently misbehaved in the hallways of Yazoo City High School show up at the doors of the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center—located fifty yards away. Georgia Ingram, the principal, says the alternative school has recently seen a noticeable uptick in its student body, which she attributes to the fact that the regular schools are trying to suspend fewer people.
Every morning, students at the Yazoo City alternative school walk through a metal detector and roll up their pant legs so the security officer, Rosie Stewart, can make sure they don’t have a cellphone in their socks. They also have to hand over their keys, which, according to Stewart, “could be a weapon.” Throughout the day, students must also walk on the right side of the hall, facing forward.