WIGGINS, Miss. – The president of the Mississippi NAACP is demanding a federal hate crime investigation after the parents of a black high school student said as many as four white students put a noose around their son's neck at school.
"No child should be walking down the hall or in a locker room and be accosted with a noose around their neck," president Derrick Johnson said Monday during a news conference in Wiggins. "This is 2016, not 1916. This is America. This is a place where children should go to school and feel safe in their environment."
Johnson said the incident happened Oct. 13 near a locker room at Stone High School in Wiggins.
Hollis and Stacey Payton, parents of the alleged victim, attended the news conference but did not speak. Their son, a sophomore football player, was not with them and they did not release his name.
The NAACP said the incident happened during a break in football practice and that the noose was "yanked backward" while on the student's neck.
Johnson would not say whether noose left any marks on the black student. According to a statement from the student's family, he returned to football practice after the incident, said Ayana Kinnel, a spokeswoman for the state NAACP.
Stone High has about 800 students, about a quarter of whom are black according to state figures. That's not a particularly high percentage in Mississippi, where half of nearly 500,000 public school students are African-American.
Wiggins, 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, is a logging town. Many people commute from the 18,000-resident county to jobs in Gulfport and other coastal cities.
Mississippi has struggled with a history of racial division. It is the last state that still incorporates the Confederate battle emblem on its state flag. In 2014, two out-of-state students at the University of Mississippi placed a noose on the campus' statue of James Meredith, the black student who integrated Ole Miss in 1962. Both pleaded guilty to using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students and employees. Neither attends the school anymore.
Names and ages of the other students allegedly involved in the Stone High School incident weren't immediately released.
The Stone County Sheriff's Department provides officers at local schools and typically is the first to respond to incidents. Sheriff's Capt. Ray Boggs said officials believe something close to what the Paytons described did happen and said he's still investigating. He said all the students involved are younger than 17 and he expects any charges would be filed in youth court, where records are closed to the public.
"It's probably one of the hardest cases I'll ever handle in my career, because of the nature of it," said Boggs, who is black. "Have I ever had to deal with something like this? No, not from a high school."
Johnson said he wants the teenagers charged as adults. That's allowable in certain situations for people between ages 13 and 16 in Mississippi. He cited federal prosecutions of young people from Rankin County for hate crimes following the 2011 death of a man run down in the parking lot of Jackson motel as an example of what federal involvement could bring. Most of those people were charged as adults, although there was evidence of at least one unusual federal juvenile prosecution.
"There is absolutely a role for federal law enforcement," Johnson said.
Johnson said Stacey Payton was advised against filing a police report because the father of one of the alleged assailants is a former law enforcement officer. Boggs said he talked to Stacey Payton and that's not true. He said he told her that pursuing criminal charges could result in hard feelings among students that could make her son's life harder at school.
Stone High School Principal Adam Stone referred comment to Superintendent Inita Owen. She and school board attorney Sean Courtney didn't respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Johnson said the Paytons have received no official word about punishments from school officials. Johnson said school district policy calls for immediate expulsion of students who commit assault.
Carissa Bolden of Wiggins, the mother of a middle school student, attended the NAACP news conference Monday and said white students have been flying the Mississippi flag from their vehicles. The upper left corner of the state flag used since 1894 has the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. Bolden said she sees a connection between the flag and the noose incident.
"I feel like it escalated from them allowing kids to bring Confederate flags" to school, Bolden said.