Forest Hill band probation upheld, JPS officials decry lack of transparency

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Jackson officials are calling for more transparency in the process that resulted in the Mississippi High School Activities Association affirming its decision to punish the Forest Hill High School marching band for a contentious halftime performance earlier this month.

The association (MHSAA) placed the band on restrictive probation after a half time performance in Brookhaven which featured students re-enacting a hostage situation pointing fake guns at students pretending to be law enforcement. A week before that performance, two police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in Brookhaven.

On Tuesday, the MHSAA executive committee, comprised of 15 school administrators (14 were present), met in private to listen to an appeal from Forest Hill officials. Jackson Public School Board member Ed Sivak said he and fellow members were not permitted in the meeting with the executive committee.

“In our experience, good governance requires accountability and transparency and throughout the process, and those qualities have been sorely lacking,” Sivak said of the MHSAA decision-making process.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson

State Sens. David Blount, (D-Jackson) and Sollie Norwood, (D-Jackson)  were also waiting outside while the committee deliberated, and both said they wanted a more open process.

“My heart goes out to the officers. I support law enforcement, obviously I support that but there again we don’t want to mistreat anybody in this process,” Norwood said. “Let’s have a fair, open process and whatever penalties come down we will at least be clear about what happened.”

The Mississippi High School Activities Association is a nonprofit entity, which means they do not have to host public meetings. The association has also not responded to a request from Mississippi Today asking for a complete list of sanctions levied against school districts in the past five years.

I would say to them it would increase confidence in your deliberations and your decisions if you made those decisions in public,” Blount said. “You can do that if you’re a private organization, if you want to.”

After the meeting, MHSAA president Don Hinton met with media and others waiting outside the board room and said the executive committee decided to uphold the restrictive probation placed on the band for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year.

This means the marching band can still perform from the stands with JPS administrative approval, he said, but cannot participate in performances on the field or in any of the association’s state competitions and activities. Hinton called the half time show an inappropriate performance, but clarified to those in the room that the band is not suspended — that status would prevent students from participating in band activities all together.

“I hope that part of the learning process for students would be that they would speak up if they felt like there was something wrong,” Hinton said. “Obviously that didn’t happen.”

JPS board president Jeanne Hairston said the decision has hit the school community hard.

“It’s so dispiriting to us as a community,” she said. “We are heartbroken that the Forest Hill band will not be able to march unders these sanctions.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Supporters applaud as Jennifer Lloyd voices her support for Forest Hill High School band director, Demetri Jones, during the Jackson School Board meeting Tuesday, October 16, 2018.

Last week, supporters flooded a Jackson Public Schools board meeting to vouch for band director Demetri Jones. Superintendent Errick Greene announced at the meeting that the district took a personnel action against Jones, but district officials have not clarified what that action is.

School officials and parents were hopeful of a favorable decision after Brookhaven leaders passed a resolution asking the MHSAA to lift the suspension.

The MHSAA originally formed in 1922 as the “State Association,” according to their website, and after several reorganizations the Mississippi High School Athletics Association, Inc. was officially named and incorporated into the state constitution in the 1950s. The organization later merged with a similar group in 1971 and kept the same name. Today, the association oversees interscholastic activities which include sports, band, speech and debate, choral events and more.

“Our number one priority and our primary focus always is for the safety, security and harmony of all our schools,” Hinton said.

The MHSAA describes itself as a private nonprofit “self supporting organization that does not rely on taxpayer dollars from any agency of the state or federal government” in its handbook.

Tax forms show that the association had $3,688,708 in revenue at the end of 2015, the most recent year available. More than $2.5 million in revenue came from “athletic gate revenues,” band contests, seminars and other services, which represent about 63 percent of all revenue. A large chunk of the association’s expenses go to wages — in 2015, more than $1.2 million went to salaries for the MHSAA staff. The highest paid executive was Hinton, who earned $180,416 in 2015, according to tax documents.

While the committee members met in private, state legislators, school board members and other supporters gathered inside the organization’s lobby waiting on a decision. Blount said he believed the band should be allowed to resume activities.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

“The halftime performance was wrong, it’s been condemned by our mayor and by our superintendent,” Blount said. “People will be held accountable, but our high school students need to be able to take part in that activity with proper adult supervisions.”

Norwood said he wanted a decision to be made with the students in mind.

…I just don’t like to see students misplaced or displaced because of decisions that were made for them above their level,” said Norwood, who once served on the JPS school board.

The Forest Hill band has two more games left this season — Hinton said the Forest Hill administration has opted to keep students from playing at the Natchez High School away game Friday for safety reasons.

The Jackson City Council is meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday; there are two resolutions on the agenda that call for the sanctions against the band to be lifted and the reinstatement of Jones as band director.