The concerns include uncertainty of what the largest school district in the county will look like, the violence affecting young people across the city, the rising number of school expulsions and the lack of opportunities for students’ social and educational well-being.
The outcries didn’t happen overnight, but they came at a crucial point in the history of Jefferson County, one that community leaders including Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington have characterized as a “state of emergency” regarding kindergarten-through-12th-grade education .
“Due to the pandemic, recent tragedies and student environment, this is now a greater need for the public schools to address areas of mental health, such as depression, anxiety, lack of motivation in school, suicide and self-harm, low self- esteem, etc.,” Watson Chapel High School’s Denim Banks said. “Just like we have counselors to guide us for a new step into the new world, and also as we have teachers to teach us about education, we need mental health counselors who are licensed to help us.”
Many in the crowd whispered in agreement, apparently struck by Banks’ comment.
Banks was among three student leaders, all ranking highly in their senior class, who were panelists in a town-hall-style forum on education Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
The forum was organized by Pine Bluff’s state legislators to give community members a voice about the state of education locally as both the Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel school districts address academic performance, safety and campaigns for new high schools.
At times, the forum took on pleas for help to make all students feel safer and give them outlets to help them steer clear of trouble. Seven people age 18 or younger have been killed in acts of violence in Pine Bluff since 2021, and unease over security was only exacerbated nearly a week ago with a shooting in the vicinity of Pine Bluff High School. On top of that, some young people have engaged in violent acts and posted threats on social media, leading school boards to expel them from campus for either the rest of this school year or a calendar year.
The issues may be repetitive, but they are seen as alarming nonetheless.
PBHS’ Kee’Darie Bush, who ranks fourth in her class, blamed some of the disturbances on a lack of extracurricular activities for teens.
“As a teen myself, when I look out at my fellow peers, I realize when you haven’t been occupying your time, you look to the outside,” Bush said. “If you’re not receiving that at home for some, or at school for others, you’re going to find it anywhere you can get it.”
For the majority of Jefferson County’s young people, the picture of their future is anything but bleak. White Hall schools Superintendent Doug Dorris has pointed out that more than 90% of secondary students in his district have not been referred to principals for “Level II” infractions such as fighting and vandalism, although the district’s board has expelled 11 students this school year, mostly for threats made verbally or through social media.
The well-decorated high school resumes of kids like Dollarway’s Jerimiah Warrior, Banks and Bush are also bright spots. All have grade-point averages higher than 4.0, Banks is a company commander in Watson Chapel’s JROTC, and she and Warrior are student council presidents.
But they are aware of the struggles their peers and adults experience in improving the livelihood of youths in and out of school.
“One of the things I have seen a lot within my school itself is, the culture and relationship between students and teachers, and even teachers and leadership is slightly — we all have to walk around on pins and needles because we don’t know each other,” Warrior said. “”Another issue that I have, we don’t have anything showing our kids [in a positive light]. It’s not all bad kids.”
The PBSD enlisted the help of local pastor Kevin Crumpton Sr. to coordinate the OK (Our Kids) program. According to a brochure provided by Crumpton, the OK Program uses a mentoring and leadership development model focusing on African American males ages 12-18 and aims to reduce the high rates of incarceration and homicide among them while improving the relationship between law enforcement and African American communities. Each week, mentors give support to young men to help them develop leadership and critical thinking skills while promoting academic excellence.
Superintendents Barbara Warren of the PBSD and Andrew Curry of the Watson Chapel School District are on the board for the Gang Reduction Initiative of Pine Bluff, or GRIP.
“The initiative has only been in play for a few months now,” Warren said. “While I can say the network of support, the system of sharing information about gang activity, and other parts of the initiative have already had a positive impact, the goal of reducing gang activity is still in the distance.”
At the town hall meeting, Banks emphasized the need for more educational opportunities and the mental health of students.
“It may be because of degrees, money or by desire, but they still can be productive citizens and successful, which means, one, allowing students to be exposed to a two-year college or the military; two, participating in programs; three , and/or getting the skills for a vocational license,” she said.
Police officers arrived at White Hall High School minutes after the shooting near PBHS to make sure nothing similar occurred, Dorris said. The district tries to keep parents more informed about activities on campus, he added.
“Everywhere we go, we talk about, ‘Hey, we need your help,'” he said. “With the way society is today, both parents having to work and things like this if they’re able to work, they’re not with the child as much as they used to be. Parents have to set strict guidelines, and they have “To follow those. We’ve got to have our community involved in it. I’m going to commend our police departments at both Redfield and White Hall. If we ever needed help in the county, the county has always been good to us.” “