Mississippi Communities Take Responsibility for School Discipline

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

"The Community is Better When the People Affected by Policy Are Helping to Make It," Betty Petty, Sunflower County, Mississippi

Several years ago, parents and community residents in Indianola, Mississippi began formally working and organizing to improve their schools. As the Indianola Parent Student Group, they began an after-school program to offer tutoring and other enrichments. They also provide trainings and support for both students and their families on public policy and on the rights and responsibilities of students, schools, and families in education matters. (See "Mississippi Parents and Students Hold Public Schools Accountable," RPM, July 2007.)

Since then the group has expanded to become the Sunflower County Parents and Students Organization (referred to in this article as SCPSO). "We work to help people understand what policy is and what it means to get communities in positions to influence policy," says Betty Petty, who works with Southern Echo and is Executive Director for SCPSO.

The SCPSO process demonstrates how communities can take responsibility for their schools, improve opportunities for students, and build a network of effective communication and collaboration, even where it hasn't existed.

For example, in the community of Drew, which has its own school system, many residents and parents were unhappy with the school board and governance practices. Three of the five board members are appointed by the County Board of Alderman and not elected directly by residents of Drew. SCPSO helped the community hold a series of meetings and trainings in which local residents learned about policies governing appointment of school board members and discussed what they wanted for their schools. The community held meetings with the Board of Aldermen to share their concerns and help its members understand better what the residents wanted in their school board: representatives who would be accountable to the community.

The Aldermen responded and appointed a school board member who is active in the community and committed to involving local residents in policy and decision-making. Now, for the first time, the School Board of this district where 95% of students are African-American includes an African-American majority.

"Going through that process is transformative," says Petty referring to the community education and planning process. "It becomes easy to see that the community is better when people affected by policy are helping to make it. Racism is not about hatred, but about domination and control," she continues, emphasizing again that in its work with schools and school governance, SPCSO is "looking for the accountability part, people who will be responsible to the whole community."

Community Response to School Discipline Issues

One of the areas on which the group has focused effort since its formation is school discipline and the high rate of short and long-term suspensions and expulsions. Petty explains that many students were being put out of school for minor infractions and for misunderstandings on the part of the teacher. "The issue is whether students are getting the skills and tools they need. It all goes back to accountability for the common good."

Many students who were forced out of school wound up on the street or dropped out. But these heavy consequences were often not met with a commensurate level of accountability on the part of teachers and the school system. Many parents did not understand their rights and were not informed of or involved in the school's disciplinary process.

Understanding and Using Policy: Dropout Prevention Teams and Teacher Support Teams

"The language of public policy is not always community-friendly, so we put policy in everyday language and help people understand it," says Petty. "That way they can change the system. That's a major dynamic to having ‘lay' people involved. When community people are participating in making and implementing policies it's more effective. It makes things better for the entire community."

Keeping up with and translating state education policy is one of the tools the SCPSO uses to support the involvement of community people in dealing with discipline issues at school. For example, the state requires every school to have a district dropout prevention team and provides for students and community residents to serve on it. Armed with this knowledge and knowledge of what the team is required to do to help the district develop and implement a comprehensive program to prevent dropouts, local residents approached the district and now serve on the team.

"Everyone has the same information and everyone knows everyone else has it," Petty explains. "When the community has information they talk from fact and begin to work from strength and knowledge."

It also means everyone knows how the process is designed to work both in setting up the team and in implementing programs. "Everyone knows there is a process to go through and that you go through the whole process and keep good documentation," Petty adds.

Petty also serves on the state dropout prevention team and is using many of the same strategies to help people around the state understand state policy and get involved.

In addition to district dropout prevention teams, state policy also provides for Teacher Support Teams (TST) and a three-tier instructional model of providing students with academic and behavioral supports as soon as they are needed.

"A teacher support team system is supposed to be in place at every school," says Petty. "If a student is acting out behaviorally or is falling behind academically, that student is referred to the TST. The team creates an intervention for the child and then reviews it to determine how well the intervention is working. There's a timeline for it."

She continues, "The team is supposed to be made up of people who are familiar with and have a friendly relationship with the student. This creates a means for effective communication between teachers, the team, and parents with an emphasis on keeping the child in school. There's a process in place if a child is having trouble and the parents can say, ‘let me see the process.'"

This web of communication helps make sure everyone involved with the child's schooling knows what they need to know to act in the child's best interests. It helps build common purpose and a system of mutual accountability. The involvement of parents and community residents who are knowledgeable about how the system is designed to work increases everyone's stake in making the process successful, and that translates to more targeted support and better outcomes for students who need it.

Changes in Sunflower County: New Local Policies and Peer Mediation Conflict Resolution

Since SCPSO has become active in working with the school on disciplinary policies and practice a number of things have changed. "We've changed our policy so that disciplinary practices line up with the infraction. Those are more appropriate and more spelled out now," says Petty. "There's more emphasis on keeping students in school and the process allows for listening to the student's perspective as well as the teacher's. If the process determines that the teacher has misbehaved they get reprimanded. Policy is for everyone."

In addition, there is a much more involved process before a child can be suspended for a full calendar year and there is a process for peer mediation and conflict resolution.

Peer Mediation Conflict Resolution

"It was to the point," says Petty, "that sometimes students' peers were urging them into bad behavior. They'd say things like ‘you're not going to take that, are you?' and ‘I wouldn't let anyone do me that way.' We wanted to create a system that could help students help each other."

So the group approached the school system about providing training in peer mediation and conflict resolution. Several local school systems agreed and a three-prong training process developed by the non-profit organization Southern Echo and the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University is in place.

"The training involves 12 to 15 students and two to three teachers," says Petty. "In the training students are asked questions like: 'what are things you like and don't like about school; and who are the people who help you when problems occur?' That's become a real learning tool for teachers to help them see students' perspectives."

She continues, "Students do role playing in the training. They learn to pay attention to what they see and hear and to document it. We teach students to think before they act: ‘If you stop to think, you will think to stop.'"

By mobilizing students and teachers to act as intermediators, conflicts and bad behavior can be addressed before it escalates. Students are often referred to the peer mediation team. "We want students to learn that the biggest thing they can do is to not respond, that when they take control over the matter and control their own behavior, they are the strong one and they earn respect," says Petty.

Once again a process for communication helps build mutual accountability and understanding.

"It all comes back to policy," Petty says. "Policy goes across the board. It's for everyone."

For more information: 

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.