The Forest Hill High School community came out in droves Tuesday night to plead with district leadership to give their beloved band director a second chance.
On Oct. 5, the high school’s band gave a half time performance in Brookhaven featuring students pointing fake guns at other students pretending to be law enforcement. The performance drew swift ire from the public and government officials because days earlier two Brookhaven police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty.
After the performance Gov. Phil Bryant condemned it on Facebook, writing “The adults who were involved with this disaster should be fired immediately. We will not accept a cover-up.”
The band’s director Demetri Jones later took ownership for the performance and said in a Facebook Live interview the skit was loosely based on the Denzel Washington movie “John Q” which features a hostage situation.
At a regularly scheduled school board meeting Tuesday, new superintendent Errick Greene thanked the audience for their comments and told the crowded room that as a result of the performance, the Mississippi High School Activities Association placed the band on restrictive probation for the rest of the school year. This means the band can be “fined and restricted in some manner during one calendar year, including being ruled ineligible to compete for championship honors in a sport(s)” according to the organizations’ handbook. Greene said the district plans to appeal this decision.
“We agree wholeheartedly with members of the community that our students were simply following the instructions that they were given and should bear no responsibility for the performance in Brookhaven,” he said.
Brookhaven city officials apparently agree. The Daily Leader reported that on Tuesday night, city aldermen passed a resolution asking the MHSAA to lift its ban on the Forest Hill band. Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox said in The Daily Leader story that “suspending the students of the Forest Hill marching band from participation in school activities does, in my opinion, place undue punishment on students who do not share any culpability, as they were acting at the direction of their band director.”
JPS superintendent Greene said the district completed a thorough investigation and interviewed all adults involved as well as some students.
“Based on the findings of that investigation and after considering the potentially grave danger in which those students were placed as a result of the performance in Brookhaven, given the context of that community, we have taken personnel action.” Greene said.
This decision has not been a popular one, he said, but “unfortunately these difficult decisions must be made and I pledge to maintain focus on student safety, on student growth and organizational health and effectiveness.”
It’s unclear what that personnel action was, specifically — in a the Facebook live interview, Jones said he received a letter from his attorney stating the district fired him from his position as band director. After the meeting a district official did not clarify what action was taken.
Greene’s comments drew some boos from Forest Hill supporters, who overflowed the parking lot and board room to vouch for Jones’ character. Many held handmade signs pledging their support to Jones and the band. Every time sometime got up to speak and defend the school, they were met with raucous applause and cheering.
Band parent and booster president Alvin Jackson said he feels the board left parents out of the decision all together.
“I just hate the reaction of the superintendent and his comments. We as parents haven’t been addressed yet,” Jackson said. “We haven’t been involved, no one has sat down and met with us as parents.”
Like many of the people who gave a public comment during the meeting, Jackson described Jones as a student-focused educator deserving of a second chance.
“I think it was just a lapse in judgement,” he said.
Eleventh grade band member Jamison Terry was part of the Brookhaven performance and told Mississippi Today despite the drama, he and his peers don’t want to see Jones go.
“I just feel like it’s been escalated to a point where it shouldn’t be political,” the 16-year-old said. “It should just be between the JPS district and the Brookhaven district.”
With the suspension, the band can’t finish out the rest of the football season, something that gives Terry “a really bad feeling.” He and his friends were really looking forward to performing on Senior Night, he said, when high school seniors request songs for the band to play.
“That’s one of the best nights, it’s just like homecoming. … It’s supposed to be a really fun time for us and it’s just gone now.”