For James Parker, an alleged misunderstanding about a cellphone at school 2½ years ago morphed into months of missed school, failed classes, and fallout that he and his family are still trying to address.
When James was a freshman two years ago at O’Bannon High School in Greenville, Miss., a teacher thought she saw him with a cellphone in class—a violation of school rules. In reality, he was listening to a classmate’s iPod during a break the teacher had given the students.
The next day, he was called into the assistant principal’s office, where he was asked to produce the phone. Although his parents told school officials that he didn’t own a phone, and the student who loaned the iPod that was at the heart of the issue vouched for sharing it with him, the school seemed to dig in its heels.
“We were informed that in order for my child to come to school, we had to produce a cellphone,” says Wanda Parker, the teenager’s mother. Until then, he could not come to school.
Charging up an old phone and giving it to the school wouldn’t do: The school wanted a functioning cellphone. James eventually had a hearing at the behest of the state department of education, because the agency said James couldn’t be out of school for no reason. The school district filed his behavior under the category of insubordination. When his parents appealed to a disciplinary committee, the suspension was upheld. The young man was assigned to an alternative school.
Since James’ saga began, O’Bannon High has hired a new principal, Derrick Cook. He says the district’s electronic-device policy is still in force, but now the school is more inclined to give students some benefit of the doubt.
“We do take into consideration witnesses’ statements from the entire class, instead of just going by one person,” Cook says. “There is an opportunity for a child to vindicate themselves.”
Still, says Assistant Principal Michael Ray, the school must police cellphone use on campus. District policy says students will be suspended for five days if they use a cellphone at school. If they turn in the phone, to be kept by the school until the end of the school year, they can avoid the suspension. If they don’t hand it over, they must attend an alternative school until they do, Ray says.
“We don’t want the child out of school for a stinking cellphone,” he says, but parents are informed of the school district policy when they sign the district handbook at the beginning of each year. “Our hands are tied.”
At the alternative school, James says, he often spent the day napping.
Short of a few brief writing exercises, he says, “I was doing nothing.” Every once in a while, he’d fill out the same sheet of paper: “I go to O’Bannon school. My name is James Parker. I am in the alternative school. What can I do to not come back, to improve my behavior?” he’d write. “I am in the alternative program for a failure—a device that wasn’t mine that I didn’t give up.”
And then, he says, “when you finish, that’s it. You go to sleep.”
His parents signed him up for an online test-prep program he used at home to try to keep from falling behind, and James pestered his teachers for schoolwork, to no avail. Meanwhile, his mother was kicking herself for transferring James to the 2,000-student Western Line school district. He’d been enrolled in another district, where she worked, but she and her husband, Roosevelt, thought it made sense for James to go to a neighborhood school.
The Parkers didn’t give up their protest of James’ placement. But it was almost two months before the state education department again intervened and James left the alternative placement and returned to O’Bannon.
James ended up failing math for the year and had to go to summer school to pass and get promoted to 10th grade. But he never seemed to catch up. His grades were poor, making him ineligible for extracurricular activities. At the end of 10th grade, he failed state tests in math, reading, and biology.
“The child wasn’t heard out,” says Roosevelt Parker, the student’s father. “The principal wasn’t open-minded. What are they trying to do?”
Now a junior at O’Bannon, James must keep taking the state tests until he passes to collect his diploma.
“If we haven’t passed, we can’t walk. We don’t graduate. I can’t get my diploma and go to college,” he says.
Joyce Parker, who is a member of the nonprofit Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable and is no relation to James Parker’s family, says his story illustrates how indiscriminately some districts use suspension as a punishment, without considering the long-term effects. She is also on the coordinating committee of Dignity in Schools, a New York City-based advocacy group that works on curbing out-of-school suspension.
“We’re not talking about guns and weapons here,” she says. “We’re talking about minor infractions.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.