Nettleton, Mississippi’s school district nabbed headlines last month for its segregated student elections policy. Though the district’s superintendent, Mr. Russell Taylor, issued a statement at the time that read, “student elections at Nettleton School District will no longer have a classification of ethnicity” and that it is the District’s intent that “each student has equal opportunity to seek election for any student office,” no new policy has been developed in the weeks since the news broke.
Aside from the creation of a diversity committee, little more has been done to end a culture of “separate and unequal” practices that included, but was not limited to, the elections policy.
According to advocates and parents in the district, a tremendous amount of personal privilege results in preferential treatment for students with families that are connected to powerful social networks, causing differential treatment for students of color, whose parents often function outside of these networks. In conversations that I have had with parents, advocates and administrators who spoke on the condition of anonymity, other illegal social policies and practices, including segregated proms or discrimination against same-sex couples, reveal discrimination that reinforces illegal segregation.
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Perhaps the most troubling accusation from community members is the alleged practice of placing students of color into advanced courses only after white students have selected all of their courses. Though there is a placement policy on record that appears fair, there is no written system of accountability or public record of decision-making to counter the accusations of parents and advocates, who claim that African-American students are only placed into whatever advanced courses still have space after the more popular courses have already been filled by white students.
The Nettleton district superintendent originally agreed to speak with me about these accusations, but was unavailable when we were scheduled to talk. It seems that the allegations of abuse of power and differential disciplinary practices for students of color grow stronger in this case the more the district fails to be fully transparent with its policy decisions.
“The issue of transparency is important because it ties to accountability,” said Jaribu Hill, Executive Director of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights. “What are they prepared to do to address the profound inequities still present in the 21st Century?”
The Nettleton School Board, though charged to set policies that effectively operate the schools and to lead the district’s efforts to comply with federal standards regarding inclusion and diversity, does not currently publish the minutes from its meetings. Parents and community stakeholders cannot find any information about board policies online or through other easily accessible, or regular correspondence. This lack of transparency is counterproductive to healthy communication between school leadership and the community it serves; and only leads to unfair and in some cases, corrupt, actions. Without the ability to monitor the decisions set by the district’s leadership, parents and community stakeholders are without the appropriate information to enforce accountability among the key policymakers designed to protect the schools’ (i.e., students) common good.
This issue of school segregation is not one that exists in a vacuum. Though the Nettleton School District is the latest example of an educational environment openly practicing discrimination, it is not alone. Unfortunately, de facto segregation and illegal discrimination against students because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation continue to plague school districts in Mississippi, and in many other states, preventing them from elevating their social policies to the standards of the 21st Century.
“In the story of Nettleton is the story of Greenville, Hazelhurst, Lee County, and Jackson County,” said Hill. “It’s the story of every place in Mississippi where there are predominately African American communities languishing in extreme poverty. We are still living with the reality of discrimination. We still have the Jim Crow culture to overcome.”
As research has shown, segregation in educational environments is not only morally detestable; it also undermines the concept of free competition, which does students of every ethnicity a complete disservice in this global economy. Not only is segregation a civil and human rights violation, it is perhaps one of the best ways to ensure the lack of competitive edge in an increasingly diverse business community. These policies and actions—particularly the alleged culture around separate and unequal access to advanced courses—have important implications on the collegiate performance and socioeconomic future of our next generations of leadership.
Much more than empty promises of equal opportunity are needed to ensure an end to the persistent human and civil rights violations that undermine students’ access to quality education. There must be an institutional commitment to do what is right not only when the cameras are turned on, or when the public is in uproar about a specific incident. The commitment to diversity and inclusion must be woven into the fabric of our school districts’ daily operations, highest aspirations, and ultimate measure of success.
To begin, School Districts—Nettleton in particular—should publish the minutes from each board meeting, so that the community of educators and social justice advocates can accurately hold their leadership accountable. The community of parents and education stakeholders must also be engaged to help schools understand the business model of diversity—how this collective effort improves the our social and work environments, and how we cannot thrive when segregation is allowed to exist.