Parents express frustration over school discipline issues

by Keith Barber

In the past five years, Mary Southern has watched her son Jimmy undergo a disturbing transformation. Before Jimmy started sixth grade at Jamestown Middle School, he never experienced any discipline issues, Mary said. However, Jimmy, now a junior at Ragsdale High School, has been suspended out-of-school a total of 41 days and in-school a total of 22 days this semester alone to his involvement in fights and confrontations with fellow students and school administrators. The most recent incident occurred on June 4 as Jimmy and his younger sister, Mercedes, waited inside the school lobby for Mary to pick them up at the end of the school day. Mary said she got a call from an assistant principal saying Jimmy was involved in a fight as she was pulling into the Ragsdale parking lot that afternoon. The incident was captured on a student’s camera phone Mary said. The footage reveals that Mercedes, a freshman at the school, tried to come between Jimmy and the other student but the other student pushed her aside and confronted Jimmy. Mary said the video also shows two adults walking past the altercation without intervening.

“It was surreal to me,” she said. “You see two adults walk past the fight and not intervene. If the adults can’t protect [the students], who will?” The next day, Mary met with Ragsdale principal Kathryn Rogers and two assistant principals to discuss the incident. Mary said Rogers informed her that Jimmy would not be suspended but would be taken out of the general school population for the final week of school. Rogers did not return a phone call for this article. On May 26, Mary took Jimmy to District Court in Greensboro, where he was scheduled to appear before a judge on a fighting charge resulting from a previous incident at Ragsdale. Mary said she was shocked to see seven other African-American Ragsdale students in the courtroom on disorderly conduct charges. Mary said the event opened her eyes to the racial component and the widespread nature of discipline problems at Ragsdale. Mary also spoke with several other Ragsdale parents who expressed similar frustrations with the school’s discipline policies. Linda Mozell of Parents Supporting Parents, a local education advocacy group, said Southern is not alone in her predicament nor in her belief that minority students are suspended and expelled in disproportionate numbers. Statistics compiled by the NC Department of Public Instruction bear out Mozell’s assertion. According to the agency’s website, minority students comprise 59 percent of the student population in Guilford County, yet they received 83 percent of short-term and longterm suspensions during the 2007-2008 school year. And African-American males accounted for two-thirds of the long-term suspensions during that school year. Guilford County serves 71,292 students and handed out 12,116 suspensions during the 2007- 2008 school year. By comparison, the Winston- Salem/Forsyth County Schools, which serves roughly 48,000 students, handed out 15,344 suspensions during the same school year. Some of the inflated numbers can be attributed to the school system’s “zero tolerance” discipline policy. Mozell said she organized Parents Supporting Parents six years ago when it became clear that discipline issues in the Guilford County Schools were preventing all students from receiving a quality education. “We were saying to our [school] system, we would like to have our children educated — nothing more, nothing less, nothing radical,” Mozell said. “We wanted a partnership with the schools where we say, ‘There is a problem, but none of us have identified what the problem is. The children have not created a problem of this magnitude.’ I believe there is some adult culpability.” Mary Southern agrees with Mozell’s assessment. She has audited several of Jimmy’s classes to try to understand why he’s struggled with discipline. What she witnessed did not assuage her concerns about the school’s discipline policy. “There is no model in the school system. There’s no structure,” Southern said. “I don’t see any rules. No one is following rules — teachers or kids. It’s a sad system right now, it really is.” Mary describes Jimmy as a “joyful child” in elementary school, but midway through his sixth grade year, he was always depressed. Mary attributed Jimmy’s depression to the constant bullying he suffered as a result of his learning difference. Mary said she taught Jimmy from a young age never to resort to violence and to always tell the teacher if there’s a problem, “but when you get to middle school and high school, there’s no teacher to tell,” she said. Lewis Pitts, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, is an advocate for children’s services. Pitts sees the discipline problems in the schools as the breaking of a sacred promise — the promise of a free education. And with the General Assembly poised to cut the state’s education budget, it’s only going to get worse, he said. “It’s a moral and national tragedy and outrage,” Pitts said. “They’re talking about making 20 to 25 percent cuts in all human services budgets. We need the public to understand this is a crisis situation.” Pitts pointed out that Title I federal funds are assigned to schools like Ragsdale for students with learning differences like Jimmy, and there must be some accountability from the school system as to how those funds are spent. Local education advocates Paul Weckstein, Anne Cortès, Mark Jewell and Debbie Maines wrote a letter published in the News & Record in September 2006 that laid out the benefits of increased parental involvement in the schools, and the need for better oversight of Title I funds. The letter pointed out that federal law requires school systems to incorporate parents’ input into their education plans as a stipulation of receiving Title I money. “When educators and policy makers bemoan the lack of parent involvement and attribute it to various causes, they’re largely stumbling in the dark because schools and parents haven’t worked together to carefully evaluate the effectiveness of parent involvement — another required, yet unfulfilled, part of the law,” the letter states. “We really don’t need to assign blame for failure to implement these strong parent involvement and program quality requirements. We just need to recognize it and agree to go back and do it right. Not just because it’s the law, but because it’s best for our children and our future.” The letter outlines the ideal situation of parents and school staff jointly putting together “all elements needed to fulfill every child’s right to a high-quality education.” Mary Southern said the situation at Ragsdale High School is far from ideal. She recounted an incident last year where a faculty member allegedly assaulted her son. When Jimmy made a verbal threat in retaliation, he was handcuffed by the school resource officer — a Guilford County Sheriff’s deputy — and transported to the High Point Police Department. Jimmy was processed and placed in a holding cell, Southern said. That incident made a lasting impression on her. “Nobody is addressing teacher competency,” she said. “If they keep the focus on the children, they don’t have to explain why the teachers are failing the kids.” Mary said Ragsdale has become a “battleground” for the students’ rage and anger. She said Jimmy has received all failing grades this semester, which school administrators have blamed on his behavior issues. Next year, Jimmy will enroll at a different high school. Mary, a nursing student at GTCC, plans on transferring to Winston-Salem State University in the fall where she will pursue her registered nursing degree. Mary said she believes in the power of education, but she no longer believes in the faculty and administrators at Ragsdale. She hopes Jimmy will find a teacher like her firstgrade teacher, whom she described as “the most empowering woman I ever knew.” “I want the best for my child and everybody else’s child,” she said. “Every single child should have the same benefits, the same education. It should be the same experience for every child.”