Commentary: Regressive discipline policy in Jackson-Madison County Schools is wrong direction

November 8, 2021 5:01 am
A Metro Nashville Public Schools bus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A Metro Nashville Public Schools bus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Up until about a month ago, my work days were spent in the presence of 20-25 adolescents who were navigating changing bodies, volatile emotions, teen angst, and the best way to learn the latest TikTok dances.  In other words, I was a middle school teacher – arguably the most challenging job in the world of education.   

It requires a special skill set to balance the patience AND the power it takes to manage a middle school classroom; it’s a delicate dance in a setting that is anything but delicate.  There are times when patience and serenity are the vibes you want to communicate to a student who is struggling to rein in their emotions.  There are other times, however, when anything serene and calm can be perceived as weakness and, in that moment as a teacher, you have lost.  It’s frankly a frightening feeling realizing that the 20 students looking back at you are collectively deciding to wage their own mental walkout and essentially do what they want to do for the rest of that particular class. I’ve been there a few times; anyone who has taught middle school has also been there.  

Managing a classroom of students – whether that class is full of five year olds or an AP class of college bound seniors – comes down to a few simple things: establishing a relationship with each student from the beginning of the school year, understanding that each day is reset from the day before, and trashing any expectations of behavioral perfection for your classroom.  Good classroom management is simply that – management, not perfection.

School discipline has been in the news for decades, but effective discipline doesn’t come from punitive actions but from the context of relationship building.  Any discipline apart from that will result in inequity and inconsistency.  

 As a teacher for years, I know effective discipline doesn’t come from punitive actions but from the context of relationship building. Yet since 2011, the Jackson-Madison County School System has been among the leading districts in the state in regards to suspending or expelling students out of school. 

Before taking a communications position in a neighboring district, my professional career was spent teaching in the Jackson-Madison County School System (JMCSS).  I was also a K-12 student in the same district.   But to truly understand JMCSS, you have to understand the city of Jackson first.  

Jackson is centrally located in the often overlooked western third of the state.  To camouflage Jackson to a greater degree, we’re nestled on I-40 right in between Memphis and Nashville.  We’re a city of 70,000 that actually feels more like 30,000.  Much like our location, our racial demographics fall somewhere between Memphis and Nashville.  In Jackson, our racial numbers are fairly balanced across the city (49% White and 44% Black) but that’s where any sort of balance stops.  

The majority of the wealth in Jackson is clustered in the northwest part of the county where a triangle of sprawling, newly built private schools sit within four square miles of each other.  The racial makeup of that area is heavily white as are the student populations of the private schools.  Each of these schools were built and have exponentially grown within the last 17 years which directly correlates to the consolidation of the city and county schools in 1992.   

The county schools were composed of mostly white students, while the city schools were more racially balanced.  When consolidation occurred, many white families began to leave the system.  

When I graduated from the largest high school in Jackson in 1997, our system demographics were fairly balanced.  Today, 60% of JMCSS students are African-American and only 28% are Caucasian.  Simple intellectual deduction can tell you why the shift has been so drastic.  In essence, Jackson has experienced its own form of resegregation.

As much as it needs to be addressed, this piece isn’t about the inherent and systemic racism in Jackson.  It’s about what the systemic and inherent racism in Jackson has wrought.  

Discipline in schools has been a hot-button issue for as long as I’ve been in education.  I can vividly  remember when I was in high school at Jackson Central-Merry and got in a little skirmish in the cafeteria.  I can’t remember if any punches were actually thrown, but there was some teenage bravado, a little chest swelling, probably a shove or two, and maybe an open hand swipe across the head of whoever I was angry with in that given moment.  That’s the thing about teenagers: they make poor decisions in highly emotional moments.  I was no different.  

We were sent to the principal’s office of course and then yelled at a bit by our assistant principal (who was also a deacon in the church I attended) and given one afternoon of detention.  We were both white students.  And while some would decry even bringing race into this, it has always been an underlying issue in this school system and this town.

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As my career as a teacher in JMCSS evolved, I was given added administrative responsibilities that coincided with my classroom teaching.  In my last four years in the district, I helped design a restorative discipline model within my school that was aimed at providing student support and change for minor behavioral issues rather than issuing punitive consequences.  The governing idea behind this model was to keep students in class where they could learn.  Obviously, major behavior incidences such as physical assault, sexual assault, zero-tolerance behaviors (weapons), etc would be handled by the office, but students should have room to grow through their mistakes rather than be punished immediately for minor behaviors.  The impetus for this discipline model was because of a troubling trend that was seemingly going unnoticed in the Jackson-Madison County School System.

Since 2011, JMCSS has been among the leading districts in the state in regards to suspending or expelling students out of school.  

According to the Annie E Casey Foundation, from the years 2011-2016, JMCSS suspended students at the second highest rate of any district in the state of Tennessee.  Only Shelby County suspended students at a higher rate.  

In 2017, the Jackson-Madison County School system overtook Shelby County as the leading district in the state for student suspension rate when JMCSS suspended or expelled 18% of its student population at various points throughout the school year.  Since that year, JMCSS has led the state in suspension rates, although those numbers have dropped each year since 2017.  In 2020, JMCSS suspended only 9.3% of its student population.  It was the first year that percentage was under 10% the entire decade.  It still led the state in suspension rate.

This school year has been the first full year for in-person learning since the 2018-2019 school year.  Students are adjusting to being back in school and, undoubtedly, behavioral issues have arisen.  And, while suspension rates dropping across the state has been a very encouraging sign, JMCSS instituted a new code of conduct two weeks ago that is sure to drive suspension numbers through the roof.

Level Behavior(s) Disciplinary Actions 

Level One:

  • Horseplay, dress code violation,     5 Day Suspension
  • Disruptive behavior, profanity,     10 Day virtual school Excessive tardiness, skipping class

Level Two: 

  • Public display of affection, skipping school,     45 day placement alt school 
  • Forged note or excuse, pornography possession      Virtual School: 45 Days

Level Three:

  • Fighting, vandalism, threats, tobacco possession or threatening other – 90 days in alternative school or 90 days in virtual school 

Level Four;

  • Use or transfer of unauthorized substances – 135 day placement alternative school
  • Bomb threat, intentional striking of staff, possession of dangerous weapons, gang activity that results in bodily harm – 135 day placement in alternative or virtual school

Level Five:

  • Aggravated assault, possession of  unauthorized drugs, possession of firearms – Expulsion – 180 days

In late September, I picked my daughter up from school and she proceeded to tell me that there was a new discipline policy and kids could be suspended “if their skirts were too short or if they even cussed once in the hallway.”  I’m an adult who has been around kids my entire career.  I know that they’re not the most accurate of storytellers.  I brushed off her comment because, even though I had left the district just two weeks prior, I had heard nothing about any sort of new discipline policy or code of conduct.

Fast forward three weeks and the district sent out a press release with a sheet attached that explained the ways the code of conduct would be enforced.  The process was broken down into five levels with level one being minor behaviors and each subsequent level describing  behaviors and punishments that each became more severe.  Each level, including levels 1 and 2, had the option for suspension or remand to the district’s alternative school.  \

Below are a few examples of behavior and potential consequences for each behavior by level.

In a district that already suspends students at a rate higher than any other district in the state, I was appalled by this new code of conduct and the way it would be enforced.  

First of all, the behaviors listed on levels 1 and 2 are ripe for inconsistent enforcement.  Words like “horseplay”, “profanity”, “public display of affection”, and “disruptive” are all incredibly ambiguous and could be interpreted ten different ways by ten different administrators depending on their own temperament and past experience.  The issue, though, is that principals most likely wouldn’t deal directly with this behavior in the moment the behavior is occurring.  Teachers would be the ones to do that.  

In any given building, there are between 30 and 50 teachers of differing backgrounds, ages, experiences, and cultures.  Teacher A may not see “horseplay” the same way Teacher B sees “horseplay”.  What does “horseplay” look like?  Are there specific behaviors that can be defined as horseplay? Is it running? Jumping? Skipping?  No one can really say, but whatever it is, it can get you suspended out of school for five days. Theoretically, it could get you suspended out of school for five days even if it’s your first time running or skipping down a hallway because there are no safeguards in place to keep initial suspensions  from happening.  

Another regressive tendency of this code of conduct is the severity of punishment for level 1 and 2 behaviors.  No one can argue that having a safe school environment is vital for learning. Kids need to feel safe.  Adults need to feel safe.  But sometimes the phrase “safe schools” can land in the same area as the phrase “good schools” and both of those phrases are loaded.

People often refer to schools or whole districts as “good” but how is “good” defined?  Oftentimes, it’s defined by state testing results which are inherently biased and don’t truly communicate how well a student can or cannot read and comprehend a text.  

A “safe school” is also equally ambiguous.  Do kids bringing vape pens to school make that school “unsafe”?  What about violating dress code?  Does wearing a hoodie or the wrong color shirt make the school a dangerous place to attend?  The obvious answer to those questions is no, but the public won’t ever argue with a district wanting a “safe school” and that’s exactly how codes of conducts like the one in JMCSS get pushed through – they are marketed as a way to promote safety in schools.

The most concerning issue with this particular code of conduct, though, is how it will adversely affect children of color.  As long as records of discipline have been kept since school integration, African-American students (specifically Black males) have been punished more frequently and more severely than their white classmates.  This has also been true in JMCSS.  

Aside from leading the state in suspension rate, JMCSS also had the highest discrepancy between suspending students of color and their white classmates.  In 2017, 25% of the African-American student population was suspended compared to 7% of the Caucasian population.  In 2019,  18% of the African-American student population compared to 6% of the Caucasian population.  

Over the last several years, as an entire country, we have faced a reckoning of our racial pasts.  We have had to have hard conversations and understand what privilege truly is and what equity looks like.  We’ve had to do the hard work of trying to rectify centuries of abuse.  Sometimes it feels like the progress is stalled – one step up and two steps back.  In Jackson, it seems even more challenging at the moment.  


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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)