JACKSON, Miss.—Minutes before the Mississippi State Board of Education was set to begin its Oct. 19 meeting, the Mississippi Coalition to End Corporal Punishment’s supporters began filing into the room, taking up every empty seat and lining the walls; those who couldn’t fit spilled out into the hallway. The crowd of more than 40 men, women and children invited the presence of the building manager and Capitol Police up to the fourth floor.
“They didn’t have enough seats in the boardroom because I asked people to come inside the boardroom and the police were clear (that there were) too many people,” organizer Ellen Reddy told the Mississippi Free Press.
Grassroots organizers, student and parent groups, and education advocates gathered at the Mississippi State Board of Education meeting for the Dignity in Schools National Week of Action Against School Pushout. The annual campaign is designed to raise awareness and inspire action against harmful school discipline practices. Mississippi is one of 17 states where corporal punishment is legal, but most districts require written parental consent to administer it.
Reddy is the convener of the Mississippi Coalition to End Corporal Punishment, which works to create awareness around the effects of school policing, paddling and zero-tolerance discipline policies. They are lobbying the Mississippi Legislature to pass a bill that would eliminate exclusionary and harsh discipline policies in Mississippi school districts.
MCECP, which held its inaugural education conference in Jackson last summer, wants paddling banned in Mississippi schools. Until then, though, Reddy wants the State Board of Education to add incidences of corporal punishment to each district’s annual report card. She also suggests having a medical professional on the board as an advisor.
“The American Medical Association says violence is harmful for children,” Reddy said. “When are we going to acknowledge the research and the evidence base? … (The state school board) approved social-emotional learning. How do you have social-emotional learning and corporal punishment? That’s incongruent.”
Before the board moved into a closed-door executive session, Board Chair Glen East informed the audience that public commenting is not allowed at board meetings. Reddy said the coalition was aware of this rule before they arrived because the board denied their request to be heard for the second year in a row.
“We previously requested to be on the agenda,” Reddy said. “The board has no statutory duty to allow us to be on the agenda, but we wanted them to know we’re citizens and (that) these young people are also citizens in this state. The board does have the authority around discipline and corporal punishment.”
The group filed out into the hallway, and Capitol Police soon escorted them downstairs. One of the officers told the Mississippi Free Press that they asked protesters to leave the area because “there were too many people in the hallway, and they don’t like that.” MDE Communications Director Shanderia Minor later said the group was only asked to move downstairs.
“The group was directed to the second floor of the building to reduce the noise level outside of the boardroom,” Minor told the Mississippi Free Press.
Reddy said their presence had its desired effect.
“We got their attention,” Reddy said. “They know we came. Even if we don’t present to the board, we want them to know that this is an issue that we care about, and they should care about it too.”
After attending the board meeting, the group marched to the Mississippi Capitol Building and convened on the steps for a rally. Charles Rush, who attended both the board meeting and the rally, said he recently joined the efforts because he wants more people to discuss how trauma surrounding corporal punishment affects students.
“I’m passionate about our children and about the direction education is going and I am concerned,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “I just left the board meeting, and there was no mention of mental health for our children. They were talking about retaining teachers but no mention of medical intervention. We have just got to do a better job when it comes to addressing the layers of trauma. … We’ve got to show our young people, especially in our schools, that there are other ways to handle conflict.”
The attendees were scheduled to meet at the Smith Robertson Museum for lunch and a debrief on the day. Jackson’s National Week of Action events closed with a day-long conversation with community stakeholders, students, parents and organizers on working to gain legislative support on Oct. 20 at the Smith Robertson Museum.
Correction: The caption in the top photo originally included a typo that misidentified the date of the rally as Oct. 29, 2023; the correct date is Oct. 19, 2023.