"When Schools Feel Like Jail" - on school discipline in the South

I've been meaning to post this fantastic piece on school discipline in the South by Eli Hager at The Marshall Project. It's a nuanced look at how schools in the Mississippi Delta discipline students, from paddling to suspension.

Though the piece doesn't cover the Arkansas Delta, I would add paddling is a regular form of punishment in many public schools there. Punishment in general is racially disproportionate. And, just as in Mississippi, the alternative school that I taught at in Helena, Arkansas was also intended as punishment. 

(I'm curious about how paddling was administered right after schools were desegregated in 1970: did it disappear, as a teacher's assistant suggested to me, because white parents didn't want newly integrated black teachers to paddle white students? I would like to hear from anybody who might know about more this.) 

Hager sets up the context of the Delta:

The Mississippi Delta, a 7,000-square-mile floodplain in the northwest part of the state, is one of the poorest parts of the country. Of the 20 counties in the United States with the highest rates of childhood poverty, six are in the delta. Black students there primarily attend the public schools, which are also primarily staffed by black teachers. The private school system is almost exclusively white. And the public school districts, which have far fewer resources than the private “academies,” are struggling mightily to deal with the bad behavior that keeps cropping up from students’ often troubling home lives.

Many of these children have witnessed domestic violence, according to teachers and parents, or come from crowded households in which multiple families live together. By the fourth grade, more than 75 percent of students are behind in reading.

And meet Rock:

In the ninth grade, when he wore the wrong-color uniform or didn’t tuck in his shirt, Rock got “whooped,” as he puts it. That meant bending over, putting his hands on a desk, and getting hit three to five times on the backside with a flat wooden paddle. Mississippi is one of only four states—the others are Alabama, Georgia, and Texas—where school districts frequently use corporal punishment on students (although 19 states allow the practice by law). Teachers and administrators openly use paddles—and, in rarer cases, belts, rulers, and key chains—to whip kids into order.

In the 10th and 11th grades, according to Rock’s official disciplinary record, he was sent to in-school detention whenever he spoke out of turn, questioned a teacher, was tardy, or refused to take off his hat. In-school detention, which in some schools is referred to as in-school suspension, takes place during school hours. Instead of being in class, Rock would sit in an empty room, doing nothing, for up to three days at a time.

“I wouldn’t say I was a smart aleck,” he says, “but I was known for speaking up.” He recalls asking “why” a lot, like why the pilot of the Enola Gay wasn’t considered “the worst murderer of all time,” and praising Karl Marx during history class. By Rock’s own description, he is curious by nature; he’s always thinking, always speaking up. “Teachers either loved me or hated me,” he says.

Then, in 2014, a few weeks into the 12th grade, Rock did the same thing a 16-year-old black girl in Columbia, South Carolina, did this October: He pulled out his cellphone during class.

When his principal told him to put it away, according to the school, Rock responded with a verbal threat: “I’m going to bust [the teacher] for taking everybody’s phones,” he said. For that outburst, he was sent to Madison County Academic Option Center, an “alternative school” 15 miles away. He was required to stay there for four months.