Jocelyn Mays is at the top of her class, but one of her hardest lessons came with a school suspension.
Last year, an ongoing disagreement with a classmate at Dunbar High School landed Mays in the office. A school administrator told Mays that her handling of the conflict was "out of character." Mays was placed on suspension. The school called her father.
"I'm not the perfect child, but I am not a bad child," Mays said.
The suspension taught the 17-year-old honor student that sometimes its best to let go of a conflict. It also put her among 62 percent of African-American girls suspended last year in Fort Worth schools. In fact, African-American students made up the majority of school suspensions for female students but were only 23 percent of the district's 86,000-plus students.
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That statistic alarmed the community because it points to inequality in schools.
"Why and how?" asked Malikk Austin, a parent with children in Fort Worth schools, during a recent school meeting on racial equity. "How did we get to this 62 percent? I have issues with it."
School leaders are working on different fronts to ensure all students are treated fairly, including analyzing data, reviewing policies, coaching teachers and staff with strategies for student behavior intervention. A district Racial Equity Committee digs deep into how to make schools serve all students. School leaders are also taking a close look at a student group at Dunbar High School — the Sophisticated Ladies — as a way to lower suspensions while building new student leaders.
"It gives our young ladies a sense of belonging and it celebrates them," said SaJade Miller, principal at Dunbar High School.
'I want to make this right'
Dunbar's Miller learned the deep sisterhood that exists with the Sophisticated Ladies when one young lady ended up in his office last year.
Under the group's rules, a member who gets in trouble has to explain what happened to the whole group, Miller said.
"They take that seriously," Miller said.
The student pleaded with Miller because she didn't want to let her friends down. She told Miller: "I don't want to go to ISS (In-school suspension). I want to make this right."
Miller said they came up with a "restorative action," or a positive action that counters the infraction. The young woman apologized for the violation to schools rules, Miller said.
Miller said in deciding an appropriate disciplinary action, sometimes suspensions are not the answer.. He said this is especially the case in situations in which students are left by themselves at home with no focus on learning.
"We have to keep students in a safe, nurturing environment," Miller said, adding that with time, patience and willing students a suspension can be replaced with a "restorative action."
For example, in another recent case, two young men who were in a physical fight faced a potential out-of-school suspension until Miller took a different approach. They talked about what happened, what led to the conflict and what choices would have made a difference.
"By the end of the conversation, we shook hands," Miller said, adding that they came up with a support plan for the students that included an apology to the classroom.
Miller said he has also been taking part in the district's cultural responsiveness training that lets educators be aware of the implicit biases they have. He said it is important for students to feel welcome and that adults won't judge them without knowing them.
"No learning happens without meaningful relationships," Miller said.
The new approach is making a difference, Miller said. Dunbar's attendance rate has gone up from 91.8 percent during the 2014-2015 school year to 92.5 percent during the fall semester. He said out of school suspensions are down for all students so far this year. There were 224 out of school suspensions in February. Last school year, there were 520.
Mays said it helps when adults and teachers take the time to learn a student's back story.
"Sometimes, you can't just judge a book by the parts you walked in on," Mays said.
'You are powerful'
The Sophisticated Ladies of Dunbar lets students build their leadership skills while helping the community and serving as role models for younger female students. Members are gaining personal confidence, promoting hard work and connecting with the community, said Regina Williams, grant and strategic partnership coordinator at Dunbar.
"It is a way to teach leadership skills, but also self accountability," Williams said, explaining the program began in the early 2000s.
In February, members passed out cards to classmates to remind them they are special. The notes read: "You are beautiful." "You rock." "You are powerful."
"You always see a woman is behind a man's shadow so we always have to let girls know, 'You can always stand out and be yourself. You don't have to hide behind anybody,'" said Beyoncia Cox, 17 a senior and treasurer of the student group..
The group breaks through the negative lens African-American women are sometimes viewed.
"I know that black girls are stereotyped as ghetto or rude," said Keanna Dial, 18, a senior who is also in Sophisticated Ladies. "We broke the stereotypes."
Negative perceptions are in motion with the national focus on African-American students and discipline, Cox said.
"It's like they are acting out for a reason," Cox said, explaining to how people paint issues about her community. She added that some people might brush off the issues with a comment such as "Oh, that's Dunbar."
Cox and her classmates said the community sees a school tucked in a struggling, low-income neighborhood and looks for the discipline issue. She said discipline numbers also don't show the who, why and what about teens' personal lives. She said people don't know what students face at home or at school that makes them end up in the principal's office.
Group members said the community doesn't hear about the Dunbar students who want to be nurses and surgeons. They said people don't hear enough about graduates who earn academic scholarships to attend Texas Christian University or The University of Texas at Austin.
This spring semester, Mays heads toward graduation with 4.1378 grade point average and membership in the National Honor Society. In February, she interviewed for scholarships.
Miller said Mays would likely be valedictorian in the Class of 2019, but she is graduating a year early with plans to become a trauma surgeon.
"Jocelyn Mays is second to none in academic excellence and prowess here at Dunbar. From her first day as a freshman up until now she has proven that she embodies the aptitude, fight, and fortitude that it takes to rise above the crowd," Miller said in a statement.. "While currently ranked number one in the Class of 2019, she has masterfully matriculated through our most rigorous courses in three years and will graduate a year ahead of time with high honors with the Class of 2018."
As Mays prepares for college, she knows she is not broken by her mistakes.
"I understand I did something bad," Mays said. "I don't feel the suspension rate should be what defines me."
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.