The SCSCP Project Team and Advisory Council traveled to Miami, Florida to learn more about the innovative work being done to positively impact students and dismantle the pipeline to prison. SCCSD Discipline Coordinator William Murphy wrote of his experience in Miami and how it shaped changes in the district’s new dress code policy.
“Discipline means teach, but we have turned it into punish.”
-Reimagining School Discipline, Miami 2016
By William Murphy, SCCSD Discipline Coordinator
I had a tremendous opportunity to travel to Miami, Florida with a diverse group of individuals from Sunflower County, Mississippi during mid-July. The group included school district officials, law enforcement, parents, students, and community leaders that delved into a journey in which we re-imagine how we view and, subsequently, discipline our students in the Sunflower County Consolidated School District.
We began our trip by taking a comprehensive view of discipline, nationally, and the increasing shift away from “zero-tolerance” conduct policies and policies that mimic the criminal justice system. We found that such policies have often relied on subjective, trivial measures to penalize students (largely students of color) that ultimately suspend or expel them at disproportionate rates. Some of the most powerful dialogue occurred at this juncture because we had the opportunity to share our own opinions regarding what needed to happen in our communities to positively impact systemic change in school discipline reform. Regardless of the individual’s role, the conversation sparked impassioned comments, personal testimonies, and challenging questions that dug below the surface of discipline and tapped into deeper, more complex issues of bias, racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination.
On our second day, we received an awesome opportunity to interact with officials of the Broward County School System. This was a district, though significantly larger than our rural district, that had committed itself to providing comprehensive student support initiatives that offered proactive methods for handling student discipline, while consciously working to drastically reduce suspensions and expulsions. The most gripping aspect of Broward County’s presentation was witnessing how so many different groups and entities worked WITH the school district to create resources FOR students. Later that evening, we traveled to “Little Haiti” to engage with youth at a local center that supports students by providing creative outlets and leadership opportunities. . Hearing the voices of children regarding their views of discipline in their own schools provided even greater insight.
The final day was the most impactful. After hearing and seeing different perspectives from a balcony view, we went to the dance floor to evaluate our own policies in Sunflower County. Starting with our Dress Code Policy and asking a few other questions about the actual discipline policy was all that I needed to begin seeing the work that we needed to accomplish within our district. We noted some areas that were unfair, subjective, as well as unnecessary in terms of educating children. It was with this mindset that I was so encouraged and inspired to immediately get to work on revising our Dress Code Policy, which was board approved a few days after our return from Miami.
Living in the south and the heart of the “Bible-belt,” no less, our perceptions of how children should act are strongly connected to our own upbringing.
We believe in spanking. We believe that “respecting grown folks” is to be quiet and listen. We believe in consequences that will “teach students a lesson.” However, we are willing to admit that our existing system is not working, and that consequences do not change human behavior.
There are some key questions that we must ask internally in order to improve our policy. Are we willing to think less about what we can do TO the child and more about what we can do FOR the child? Are we willing to remove subjective, “petty” (as the children would say) language and actions from our school campuses and day to day operations? Are we willing to spend more time and energy preventing, intervening, and supporting students, as opposed to reacting to negative behaviors, returning the student to the same setting with no intervention, and repeating these steps until suspensions or expulsions are waiting at the doorstep?
There is still much work to be done, but I am encouraged by the diverse group of leaders that made a commitment to helping begin the process of re-thinking how we discipline students in our district. I am excited and grateful for the opportunity to be working alongside some amazing people to get the job done!
William Murphy is the Discipline Coordinator for the Sunflower County Consolidated School District.