Community and school leaders in the Sunflower County Consolidated School District (SCCSD) are thinking big about how to build community-wide support to keep young men and boys of color in school and build a positive narrative about their potential and their future.
The ACLU of Mississippi is leading a network of community partners to dismantle long-standing systems of structural and institutional racism and bias by working across the community to engage students, parents, teachers, administrators, municipal and county law enforcement, the juvenile justice system and local media. The partners in the collaborative include the ACLU of Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice, Sunflower County Consolidated School District and Sunflower County Community P-16 Council.
“Everyone has the same goal: We want the system to work in favor of the students and their best interests,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “We want to create a new ‘normal,’ a new set of policies, practices, expectations and perspectives – a new picture of how young men and boys are perceived and treated.”
The district appointed Sunflower County Consolidated School District Coordinator Demond Radcliff to serve as discipline coordinator and a liaison between the collaborative and the school district’s leadership. Radcliff said he is committed to working with both parents and students.
“I want to find a way to give students more opportunities to be successful,” he said. “We need a tiered process for discipline, something that gives more time to really research and understand students with behavioral issues. Instead of just kicking them out of school, we need to have policies that give them behavioral intervention.”
Sunflower County Consolidated School District has made a commitment to consider proposed policy changes that will keep more students in school. Currently, SCCSD is number two in the state for youth court referrals.
Dr. Debra Dace, superintendent of SCCSD stated “the public perception is that we have dangerous schools where students are always suspended. We have to change that.”
A big part of the collaborative’s focus will be on training and development – for administrators, teachers, parents and students. The group will identify evidence-based, best practices that are working across the country and shape them to fit the needs of the young men in Sunflower County.
Jacorius Liner, Mississippi Center for Justice’s advocacy coordinator, said in addition to crafting necessary policy change, the collaborative is working with the media to change how they portray young men and boys of color.
“We are not only changing a school system. We are addressing a community and impacting lives, many of which have dealt with implicit, unconscious, historical bias. The media is an equal contributor to how the young men view themselves and how other people view them,” Riley-Collins said.
Kimberly Merchant, director of educational opportunities with the Mississippi Center for Justice, which is researching school discipline statistics to measure the collaborative’s progress and identify areas of particular concern, said she hopes the work leads to no suspensions and expulsions in the district.
“I want us to think big. Success to me is that SCCSD be the first school district in Mississippi to report no expulsions or suspensions in a school year,” Merchant said. “So my question to the community and those of us working on this project is, ‘what do we need to do to make that happen?’ We have to change the policies to get there. We have to engage in training. We have to have processes in place. Parents have to be on board. Schools have to be on board.”
Aisha Carson, ACLU of Mississippi’s advocacy coordinator for the project said, “It’s going to take work, compromise and awareness of the components and variables that are in place, including the policies that are recommended to change the system. This is our home state. We have a vested interest in this."
This pilot project will engage systems in a strategy to create positive and supportive institutions and pathways - helping young men and boys of color succeed - and establish a best practice model that can be implemented in any community.