Citizens express concerns over schoolsBy MARLAN JONES,
Classes for Simpson County Public Schools will resume in less than two weeks. The Simpson County branch of the NAACP recently hosted a meeting to address concerns over the Simpson County School District with members of the school board.
The meeting was held at the Magee Community House, and all school board members and Superintendent Greg Paes were invited to attend. Stanley Bulger of district 4 and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert Sanders were present to answer questions on behalf of the Simpson County School District.
The school district representatives were joined by three NAACP members, Louis Carter, Carl Burton, and Archie Skiffer, to complete a panel. Skiffer served as moderator and presented the panel with questions. Each member was allowed to express and address concerns concerning each topic.
The first question posed to the panel concerned consistency with student disciplinary actions. Carter asked for consistency in disciplinary actions and stated that the process should be more transparent, and parents should be more informed.
Burton said discipline included more than punishment, but also teaching children the things they should be doing. He called for everyone to be more involved in discipline and said it started with establishing a better parent, student, and teacher collaboration. He said that was the original purpose of the P16 Committee, but he believes the committee has since strayed from that goal.
Skiffer provided the panel with an example of inconsistent disciplinary practices concerning an incident at Mendenhall Jr. High which involved a fight between a black student and white student. The students were scheduled to attend a field trip. As a part of the punishment, the black student was not allowed to attend the field trip, but the white student received a different punishment and was still allowed to attend the field trip. Skiffer expressed concerns over the difference in consequences.
Dr. Sanders responded by saying there is a process in place for handling discipline and referred to the student handbook. He said issues have been brought to the district’s attention in the past about similar incidents and they have all been addressed. Sanders said, “One child receiving one punishment and another child receiving something different is a problem. There are resources available to report such incidents.”
He said the district does its best to make sure each situation is approached with equity. Sanders pointed out issues with inconsistency in terms of reporting behavior problems. Some disciplinary infractions are being reported and others are not. He said they are currently working to rectify the situation.
He said that when he was a principal it was his duty to hold everyone responsible for enforcing policies for all children. He encouraged everyone to report any perceived disparity in the disciplinary process.
The panel discussed the operation of the Achievement Center and jail school. Sanders acknowledged that there are more black males in the Achievement Center than any other group. He said the district is currently evaluating the type of infractions that lead students to the Achievement Center. Skiffer expressed concerns with students getting lost, in their transition from the Achievement Center and jail school, back to their home site. Sanders acknowledged that some students are not successful in those settings and continue to struggle academically or behaviorally. The school district is constantly evaluating the two alternative school programs and trying to improve.
Bulger gave his final words on discipline saying, “It has nothing to do with race. It’s our duty as school board members to look out for each child but also to make difficult decisions based on the success of the majority of students.”
School lunches have been a big issue for the past two years. The school district was left with approximately $16,000 in unpaid lunch fees, due to students charging meals and not paying. Last year students who did not have lunch money were given an alternate lunch. The alternate lunch seemed to serve as a deterrent while still providing the child with a meal. According to the 2019-200 Student Handbook the Simpson County School District will have a “no charge” policy which will be strictly enforced. Students with no funds to pay for their meal will not receive breakfast and will be given an alternate meal consisting of a sandwich and milk. The price of meals has also been increased by 35 cents.
This caused concern in the community that students were going hungry throughout the day, which would impede their ability to learn. In an effort to give perspective Bulger stated that nearly 80 percent of students in the district are eligible for free meals. So the policy change affects a small percent of the student population. Bulger explained that the district had to stop charging school lunches due mostly to incurring a substantial amount of debt.
He said, “If we allow students to not pay their bills then we as a school board are responsible. We won’t let kids go hungry, but we want parents to be more responsible.” Sanders said the lunch situation is a national issue, and the board is working to circumvent that. “No learning will take place if a child is hungry.”
Skiffer referenced Crystal Springs schools, where all students eat free, and questioned why Simpson County Schools could not do the same. Carter questioned the price increase for meals.
Bulger responded, “Feeding these kids is very important to us . We had no choice but to raise the prices, and we were intentionally vague on policy to comply with the law. We’re going to feed these children.” Bulge stated that what was put in writing and what was done in practice can be different in this regard. He said, “We all agree that we’re going to feed these children.”