By NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Community unrest continued two days after the Tupelo Public School District announced that Lee Stratton would not be Tupelo High School’s principal next year.
Stratton’s popularity was on display in a variety of ways: during a student protest held outside the school before classes began, at an afternoon rally at City Hall and in multiple online and social media comments.
“I don’t know a person who doesn’t respect Coach Stratton and how much of a good and humble Christian man he is,” Tupelo High School junior Dylan Vuncannon said while protesting with about 15 others in front of City Hall after school.
The district announced Tuesday that Stratton, who has spent 25 of his 31 years as an educator in Tupelo, will be reassigned within the system. Superintendent Randy Shaver said on Thursday Stratton will be a principal somewhere. The district currently has two principal openings, at Parkway and Carver elementary schools, where Joan Dozier and Brenda Robinson, respectively, have announced their retirements.
Stratton won’t necessarily take one of those two jobs, however, because other principals may shuffle schools. Kay Collins, the principal of Church Street Elementary, which is being merged with Carver, is expected to lead Carver.
Stratton will be replaced at THS by Chris Barnes, principal of a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school in North Carolina, effective July 1.
A couple of hundred Tupelo High students protested before school Thursday morning. Many of the students wore T-shirts that a student group had ordered. They read, “We Back Strat.”
The students chanted that same phrase while standing together on the grass at the foot of the Cliff Gookin Boulevard bridge. Students who were tardy to class were written up, but Tupelo Schools Communications Director Kay Bishop said no one was punished specifically for protesting.
Shaver also acknowledged the students’ right for peaceful protest.
“I think the students did a good job of being orderly today,” he said. “I respect their right to state their opinions as long as they are not violating any rules or laws. I want them to act responsibly in voicing their opinion.”
Senior Chelsea Berry said that she is most upset that the district took a well-respected principal and replaced him with someone the students don’t know.
She also said that the students intended to keep their protests peaceful.
“We don’t want to give them a reason to put this on us,” she said.
About 40 parents took part in Thursday morning’s protest, and several joined the City Hall rally in the afternoon.
“I have a daughter in ninth grade, and I’m supporting her and all the kids, and I’m trying to support Coach Stratton,” said Donnie Peterson outside the high school before classes began. “He is probably the best thing that could have happened in Tupelo.”
A THS student protest about the school’s principal was not unprecedented. An estimated 800 students held one in May 1996 after Mac Curlee was named THS principal instead of then-interim principal Sue Shaw Smith.
Before becoming full-time principal this year, Stratton served as interim principal after Glenda Scott stepped down. He also has been a boys basketball coach and an assistant high school principal.
Shaver and School Board President Amy Heyer both said that for legal reasons they could not comment on the reason for Stratton’s reassignment.
“I cannot comment on that, and I won’t,” Shaver said. “That would not be fair to Mr. Stratton. There is a reason personnel records are protected by law.
“I think Lee Stratton is a fine man. Everyone tells me that he is an outstanding example of a Christian man, and I know that he is because I have seen it in his life. He has been extremely valuable to the district, and he will continue to be. He is not being demoted. He is being reassigned to a position where he can best serve our students.”