By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Roughly 100 people crammed into an auditorium on Itawamba Community College’s Tupelo campus on Monday night for a forum reviewing discipline in Tupelo’s schools.
The event was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Representatives of that office will be in town this week reviewing documents and collecting interviews to determine whether discipline in the district is administered equally across racial lines.
Lori Howard, an attorney with the OCR, said on Monday that the review is not in response to a particular complaint against the school district. Instead, the office chose Tupelo Schools as one of several districts to help it study the larger issue of how race affects discipline in school districts. She did not say specifically why Tupelo was chosen.
“We get together nationally and decide what we want to focus on,” Howard said. “It is not an indication that anything going on here is wrong.”
Results of the compliance review will be made public when it is completed, which will likely be several months from now, Howard said.
As they start their on-site investigation, Howard and fellow OCR attorney Tiffany Gray made a presentation on Monday night about the laws that prevent discrimination in schools receiving federal money. They then allowed members of the audience to speak about specific issues they had encountered and things investigators should check for in conducting their review.
“I think a lot of parents who have talked to me have valid points, and we need to address them,” said parent Juanita Floyd, who attended Monday’s forum.
Concerns discussed by attendees on Monday didn’t only involve discipline. They included frustrations over a lack of black teachers, the district’s achievement gap and the high number of black students placed in the alternative school. Others spoke about students being labeled and tracked from an early age, bullying and the administration of dress codes, among other issues.
Parent Elvin Baker said he believed teachers needed to be more strict.
“I think a lot of problems could be handled in the classroom before it gets to something like this,” he said.
He added that he would like for parents to have an opportunity to address their concerns to district representatives in a public forum.
City council member Nettie Davis, who also attended Monday’s meeting, agreed that there should be further discussion.
“I think it is a start to accomplish something,” Davis said. “Discipline is the main issue being discussed all over the city. It is one of the big problems that citizens of all races are upset about. We need to have a follow-up.”