SOCSD, MSU partner for school-to-prison pipeline research


David May, left, and Brandi Burton

David May, left, and Brandi Burton



Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff



The Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District will collaborate with Mississippi State University to examine the local impact of the school-to-prison pipeline by interviewing middle and high school students and creating a variety of focus groups.


The SOCSD Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the proposed research project by David May, a sociology professor at MSU and recipient of a grant to gather and publish data on the school-to-prison pipeline. May's efforts aim to identify common reasons why young people end up in prison, what schools are doing that could be expediting that process and ways schools can instead stem the problem.


The board approved the district's participation in the project last year, pending May's receiving the grant. At the time, May requested Brandi Burton, the district's grants and innovative strategies specialist, as the liaison between MSU and SOCSD.



May will lead focus groups of teachers, school police officers, administrators and counselors, students and their parents. They will later administer a 30-minute survey, with parental consent, to the general student populations of Armstrong Middle School and Starkville High School.


Past studies of the school-to-prison pipeline have not interviewed prisoners or students, said May, who has been researching schools and prisons for more than two decades. He has already interviewed Mississippi prisoners for the project.


"The focus group responses were really interesting and kind of confirmed what I thought all along, that nobody's really asking the people involved," May said. "They're just taking the numbers on both ends, and I don't think that's the way we should do it. I think we should talk to the people involved."


Burton will set up meeting spaces in a classroom setting after school hours, tell parents about the project and get approval for their children's participation in the focus group. The students chosen will have records of discipline from the schools, including suspensions.


"It wouldn't do any good to talk to kids that haven't had any experience with trouble in schools and the school system," May said.


School board attorney John Hill expressed concerns about the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law protecting students' educational information from entities including public universities. Burton's role as liaison will ensure that May will not know the names of any students or their parents, May said.


"They'll bring in 10 kids and I won't know anything about them," May said. "I'll hand them a number and we'll start talking for the focus groups. Same thing with the parents."


May will likely know some teachers since his children have attended school in the district, he said, but all the teachers will be anonymous in the data.


Superintendent Eddie Peasant and board member Sumner Davis both said after the meeting that the project will inform the district about what it might need to do differently for its students.


The board also approved a research request from Alyssa Hutcheson, a graduate student at MSU's School of Human Sciences. She revised the state's current agriculture lesson plans that adhere to the state's new College-and-Career Readiness standards at the request of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.


One fourth-grade classroom will receive the revised lessons, another will receive the existing ones and another will receive neither as the control group. The means of measuring students' agricultural literacy will include social science and math in addition to science, Hutcheson said.


The board did not pass a motion to renew its license agreement with SpedTrack, the software the district uses to manage individualized education plans for special education students. State attorney general Jim Hood recommends that school districts avoid contracts with limited liability clauses.


SOCSD Director of Student Support Services Julie Jones said she will look into another IEP management software program before the next board meeting. The district's contract with SpedTrack expires in October.





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