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Filed 7:15 a.m.

When School Feels Like Jail

Isolation rooms and paddling: What some schools in the South are doing to keep students in line.

A student inside the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center, an alternative school in the Mississippi Delta.Rory Doyle for Medium/BRIGHT

Rockmon Montrell “Rock” Allen, an 18-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, has never gone to jail. But school, he says, was close enough. At Ridgeland High School, a large public school in an increasingly black suburb of Jackson, he was punished repeatedly for what seemed like minor reasons.

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.

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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.

Rockmon Allen now attends Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., after graduating from Ridgeland High School.

Rockmon Allen now attends Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., after graduating from Ridgeland High School.

In most states, students with emotional or learning disabilities or who are low on credits and at risk of dropping out are enrolled in alternative schools for long stretches, usually a year or more. But in Mississippi, students are temporarily placed there as punishment.

At Rock’s alternative school, there were no windows in the classrooms and hallways. Teams of up to seven police officers regularly walked in and out, searching students’ jackets. Rock grew to like the sometimes-overwhelmed teachers, but, he says, ninth- and 12th-graders were all held together in the same crowded rooms and received no academic instruction for weeks at a time.

By December, Rock was released and tentatively put on probation. He returned to his regular high school, where any infraction would mean getting sent back to the alternative school.

Only a few days later, Rock was caught in the parking lot during lunch—a common practice that isn’t against school rules—and charged with being “outside of his assigned area” in violation of his probation.

He was sent back to the alternative school for the remainder of his senior year.

The punishments Rock received—the paddling, the in-school detention, the stints in alternative school—are not new. Corporal punishment is a traditional practice in the rural South, and alternative schools were established by the state of Mississippi in 1993. But according to teachers and parents, use of these methods is growing around the state, in part because of increased pressure from both advocates and school administrators to lower suspension rates and keep kids in the classroom—and in part because there is no money to implement less-punitive alternatives, which would require training or hiring new staff.

Suspensions throughout the country have surged over the past two decades, largely because schools have relied on so-called zero-tolerance policies: If a student acts out, he or she is kicked out of the classroom, either by suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as juvenile crime rates and fear of adolescent “superpredators” grew, legislatures and school districts adapted the no-excuses rhetoric of “tough on crime” laws into their approach to school discipline.

By 1997, 79 percent of schools around the country had implemented zero-tolerance policies, and by 2000, schools were suspending more than 3 million children per year. (By way of comparison, that’s the same number of students who will graduate from public high schools this year.)

But a growing body of research shows that students who miss many school days will return to the classroom behind on their work, confused about what they’ve missed, and all the more likely to act out. Left unsupervised during the day, without anything constructive to do, they are more likely to get arrested, go to jail, or ultimately drop out of school. According to a 2011 report from the Council of State Governments, students who have been suspended or expelled are twice as likely to repeat their grade and three times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system—within a year—compared to similar students at similar schools.

Clockwise from top left: Students learn about tolerance at Cleveland High School in the Mississippi Delta; a student asleep in class at the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center; students walk through a metal detector at the Alternative Learning Center; police park outside Cleveland High School after school.

Clockwise from top left: Students learn about tolerance at Cleveland High School in the Mississippi Delta; a student asleep in class at the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center; students walk through a metal detector at the Alternative Learning Center; police park outside Cleveland High School after school.

Research also shows that punishments like suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately meted out to black students. They are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled or referred to law enforcement for the same infractions, according to civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Acknowledging the problem, in 2010, public schools in Boston began discouraging suspensions and expulsions, which then dropped from 743 to 120 in only two years. In 2013, Los Angeles banned the practice of kicking students out of school for subjective infractions like “willful defiance.” Suspensions there have also plummeted by more than 50 percent. And Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, told schools earlier this year that from now on, all suspensions must be approved by his administration.

In January 2014, the Obama administration issued new federal guidelines under which schools must reduce their reliance on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has since been investigating school districts across the country that use suspensions to unfairly “push out” students of color and students with disabilities.

Mississippi, which suspends a higher ratio of black to white students than any other Southern state, has received the message loud and clear.

In the southeast part of the state, schools in the town of Meridian—which were investigated by the Department of Justice for routinely suspending, arresting, and sending students to jail for minor in-school infractions like using profanity, flatulence, and “disrespect”—have been ordered by their superintendent to stop calling the police unless a student commits a felony.

Toni Kersh, director of school attendance for the state’s Department of Education, says, “We’re encouraging schools to start handling discipline in-house.”

That in-house discipline includes policing the hallways, having students walk through metal detectors daily, patting them down, relying even more heavily on corporal punishment and in-school detention, sending more students to alternative schools, and surveilling them with cameras. The Tupelo Public School District, in eastern Mississippi, for instance, recently promised the Office for Civil Rights that it would “ensure to the maximum extent possible that misbehavior is addressed in a manner that does not require removal from school.” In June, the school board authorized security guards to start carrying pepper spray in classrooms and hallways.

National experts on school discipline point out that these measures are not unique to the South. “You see it at charter schools a lot,” says Kathleen Nolan, a professor of teacher preparation at Princeton University and an expert on zero-tolerance policies in schools. “Straight from the model of order-maintenance policing—dress code, silence, walk in straight lines, metal detectors—except now it’s in the schools and being done by teachers with less training in this than the actual police have.”

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.

“These kids continue to walk in the door hurt, angry, and poor, and we have no resources really to deal with that,” says Joecephus Martin, a former elementary school teacher who now works with juveniles who have been arrested. “So what do we do instead of suspending them?”

The answer, traditionally, has been to get ahead of the behavior and maintain order by punishing students for any infraction, large or small. “You have to stop the small stuff to prevent the big stuff,” says Julius Lucas, principal of West Bolivar High School in Rosedale, a town in the western part of the delta.

Students walk home from school in Rosedale, a town in the Mississippi Delta.

Students walk home from school in Rosedale, a town in the Mississippi Delta.

Tardiness is a paddle-worthy offense. Behavior labeled by teachers as “defiance,” “disrespect,” “horseplay,” or “disorderly conduct” gets the same punishment. If a student wears the wrong uniform—the wrong-color shirt or pants, an untucked shirt, shoes that aren’t plain black or plain white, or, in some schools, jackets with a zipper—same punishment again.

“They been coming up with all kinds of new stuff. But it’s the same thing—trying to catch us being bad,” says Keshaun, a student at D.M. Smith Middle School in Cleveland, Mississippi, 20 miles from Rosedale. Keshaun says he recently forgot his gym shorts and was taken into a back room to get paddled. “It’s called getting ‘cookies,’” he says. “They do it harder the worse they think you are.”

Three-strikes rules are also prevalent. In the South Delta School District, students caught twice in possession of “distracting articles” like cellphones are sent to the alternative school the third time. In the north delta, at the DeSoto County Alternative Center, female students must “shake out” and “pop” their bras during daily searches, and boys must remove their socks, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

In rare, particularly extreme cases, teachers and administrators even use restraint and seclusion tactics, locking them in rooms, closets, or “boxes”—small, enclosed areas where teachers send kids to “cool down”—when they misbehave. In a survey by the ACLU, more than 13 percent of parents in Mississippi said their children had been restrained by staff, and about 12 percent said their children’s school had a seclusion room.

South of the delta, at the Capital City Alternative School in Jackson, dozens of kids were handcuffed to metal poles, chairs, even bus seats; uncuffed when it was time to go home; and then recuffed each morning—all for wearing the wrong-color belt or not completing their work. Jackson Public Schools ultimately agreed to stop using the handcuffs and hire an independent monitor.

Sabrina Mitchell’s sixth-grade daughter has a mood disorder and was whipped with a belt by the janitor at Lexington Elementary School in Holmes County, in the eastern delta. (Lexington Elementary has since been consolidated with another school and changed its name.) When she was eight years old, she was also put in a closet in the school basement.

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Jarquez, a student in nearby Sunflower County, says that in middle school, he was repeatedly patted down and told to open his backpack; now that he’s a sophomore at Gentry High School, in the town of Indianola, Jarquez is regularly required to walk through a metal detector. And every time he’s a few seconds late to class or is wearing the wrong belt, he immediately gets sent to in-school detention for a paddling by one of the coaches.

“I understand safety,” Jarquez says, “but I feel like they’re my aggressor, like I’m unappreciated. School shouldn’t feel like that.”

Adoris Turner, a spokesperson for the Sunflower County Consolidated School District, did not respond to the specifics of what goes on at Gentry High School but emphasized, “What we do may not be popular, but it keeps our children safe. We take the safety of our children extremely seriously.”

How unsafe are classrooms? To teachers and administrators, the behavioral problems are persistent and real. Without the funding or support to experiment with less-punitive forms of discipline, they say, they have to do what they can to protect other students.

In Jackson, teachers share stories of children bringing steak knives and other weapons to school, using drugs in the bathroom, calling teachers “punk bitch,” and burning down portable classrooms. In the delta, the behavior is rarely violent—but for many teachers and even other students, it is relentlessly disruptive.

When West Bolivar High School teacher Devon Stukes announces an upcoming test to her 11th-grade English classroom, considered by her administrators to be one of the better-managed in the building, there’s a lot of “What the?” and “I ain’t doing that,” and “But, Ms. Stukes, Ms. Stukes, I don’t have those notes!” A few students keep whining that another student is touching or poking or annoying them.

At one point, Stukes, who has been teaching at West Bolivar for only one year but has been a teacher for more than a decade, whips her head around to stare down one rowdy student and says, “I know that can’t be my stapler being thrown across the room.”

A student does homework at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an after-school program in the delta.

A student does homework at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an after-school program in the delta.

After class, she explains, “It’s not violence or anything like that. It’s mostly being-a-kid stuff, and also a lot of complaining—they’re not used to being expected to work bell-to-bell and really achieve. Some of them have a kind of ‘woe is me’ attitude.”

As Tamaria, one of Stukes’s students, puts it, “My classmates, they always want attention. They always be playing while the teacher is talking. I feel like part of the reason everyone is so behind is because we waste so much time.”

Many administrators throughout the state agree but have little money to throw at the problem—to hire counselors, psychologists, tutors, special education teachers, or teachers qualified to do more than “guard” the students during detention. The state legislature regularly votes against full funding for the public schools, and in early November, voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative to force lawmakers to do so.

And because so few qualified teachers want to take low-paying, nonunionized jobs in rural towns, many classrooms are staffed by noncertified, retired, or beginner teachers who are in basic survival mode.

“Paddling and in-school detention, it’s a short-term, low-energy solution to all of that,” says Jeremiah Smith, who helps run the Sunflower County Freedom Project, which offers after-school classes to kids in the central delta.

Carl Lucas, the algebra teacher and basketball coach at Simmons High School in Hollandale, in the southwest part of the delta, explains that these practices are highly traditional and provide an efficient and reliable alternative to out-of-school suspensions. “The parents, they almost all support it,” he says, “and the children respond to it. It’s what we have that works.”

Unlike in the delta, teachers in Jackson don’t have that option. Corporal punishment has been prohibited here since 1991. Cedrick Gray, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, has repeatedly instructed schools around the city to reduce their reliance on suspensions. The police department is no longer regularly called to disrupt fights and keep order. Teachers say they are shamed for referring kids out of class too often.

"I agree suspending so many kids raised the chances of their dropping out, getting involved with the police,” says Lynn Schneider, a 14-year veteran high school English teacher in the school district. “But we’ve gone the opposite direction—discipline has fallen apart.”

A paddle used for disciplining students during gym class at D.M. Smith Middle School in Cleveland, Miss.

A paddle used for disciplining students during gym class at D.M. Smith Middle School in Cleveland, Miss.

Cities including Boston, Denver, Portland, OR, and Oakland, CA, have successfully responded to federal demands to reduce suspensions. They also have the money to purchase prizes—candy, pens, T-shirts—and other incentives for good behavior or to implement “restorative justice” programs, which often require hiring a full-time coordinator. (In restorative justice programs, students learn about the consequences of their misbehavior. A student who vandalizes a classroom works with the janitor to clean it up; students who get in a fight meet with a professional mediator.) In Jackson, schools have funds to offer positive rewards only once a month. And Superintendent Gray says that grant money for restorative justice has yet to arrive.

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In a recent survey by the Jackson teachers’ union, two-thirds of respondents said their classroom feels “out of control” on a daily or weekly basis, 60 percent said they have been physically assaulted, and 46 percent said they are considering leaving their job or even profession because of the mayhem. Crucially, 62 percent said they saw no good alternatives to suspension, expulsion, and police involvement for students who act out.

“We absolutely wish we could use corporal punishment—that would be what works,” says one language arts teacher who did not want to be named. “If we don’t use real force, the transfer of power happens in an instant.”

On a typically muggy Wednesday in October, students who have recently misbehaved in the hallways of Yazoo City High School show up at the doors of the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center—located fifty yards away. Georgia Ingram, the principal, says the alternative school has recently seen a noticeable uptick in its student body, which she attributes to the fact that the regular schools are trying to suspend fewer people.

Every morning, students at the Yazoo City alternative school walk through a metal detector and roll up their pant legs so the security officer, Rosie Stewart, can make sure they don’t have a cellphone in their socks. They also have to hand over their keys, which, according to Stewart, “could be a weapon.” Throughout the day, students must also walk on the right side of the hall, facing forward.

Inside the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center.

Inside the Yazoo City Alternative Learning Center.

Stewart goes to training once a year to learn discipline strategies from real police officers. “They showed us everything—how to look for drugs, to identify gangs, to lock down the building, and also transition people out of lockdown,” she says. “And now I check in with the police department at the end of the summer to see which kids I should be looking at.”

(At one point, Stewart demonstrates on this reporter the restraint tactics she would use on a student who might get violent. She twists my right arm behind my back, then takes her right hand and slowly shows me how she’d karate-chop me in the neck. If that didn’t subdue me, Stewart explains that she would then have to hit the side of my knee with her knee.)

In one room, several students kill time by standing, then sitting, then standing, then sitting down again, often concluding by putting their heads down on the desks.

Rock describes feeling similarly restless at the Madison County alternative school; he had nothing to do, but not, he insists, because the teachers didn’t want to teach. His school, Ridgeland High School, did not send over his classwork, Rock says, and he missed almost a year’s worth of curriculum.

Rock had always wanted to go to Georgia Tech, to move away from Mississippi and be “somewhere you don’t have to conform, where it’s okay to be a little weird.” But that dream felt more distant with each day he spent in the alternative school. “The isolation in there made me think more,” he says, “but not being able to express those thoughts, to really express it, was driving me just mad.”

Ridgeland High School would not comment for this story. Ronnie McGehee, superintendent of the school district, wrote in an email that Rock received instruction at the alternative school through “a computer-based program that allowed him to work at his own speed and progress toward achieving credits.” McGehee also pointed out that Rock graduated with a full diploma, which he was only able to achieve “through working with dedicated teachers and administration.”

After his senior year, Rock didn’t get out of Mississippi. He ended up in a two-year community college in Jackson and hopes to move to Atlanta after he graduates.

“I got scared he wouldn’t graduate,” says his mother, Margie. “But he is such a bright, bright child. That light in him never went out.”

On a recent fall day, walking around his new campus, Rock looked back on his final year in high school. He realizes he was a kid “with a little Jackson in him” and has a theory as to why his school administrators, most of whom were black, were always hard on him.

“I think they look at me and they see some of that something-something,” he says. “And it reminds them of themselves when they was young, and they remember that it got them arrested, got them thrown in jail. And they think, ‘I’ve got to erase that in him. I’ve got to wipe that off him so he makes it out okay.’

“But they’re wrong,” Rock adds. “That thing in me is not bad—it’s the best thing, actually. I don’t think noncompliance is disrespect. I just want to be creative.”

You tell us: What are some promising solutions that help teachers feel in control of the classroom, without relying on discipline practices that resemble the criminal justice system? Join the discussion on our partner site Bright.