WIGGINS, Miss. (AP) — A black 15-year-old in Mississippi shook in fear as he described how white schoolmates put a noose around his neck and pulled it tight, leaving no physical scars but perhaps a life-changing emotional wound, his mother said.
Stacey Payton, a 47-year-old college instructor, said her son met her in her office and told her about the Oct. 13 incident a few hours after it happened in a high school locker room.
"His first words were, 'Mom ... please stay calm. Don't panic. I don't want you to call the school because it's already been handled,'" Payton told The Associated Press on Thursday. "When I was looking at him, he was shaking and the expression on his face — he was horrified. He was very fearful."
She expected him to say he had received a bad grade or had gotten in trouble for talking in class.
"And he said, 'Mom, they put a noose around my neck and they pulled it tight and it choked me.' And I just instantly — it was like a chill went over my body."
The Stone County Sheriff's Department is investigating. Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson is calling for federal authorities to investigate a possible hate crime. The FBI said it is aware of the incident but wouldn't confirm or deny an investigation.
The teen is quieter than usual but is still attending classes and playing football at Stone High School in Wiggins, a logging community in the piney woods about 40 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
Payton described her son as peaceful and said he was friends with the boys involved. Up to four white students took part, the family said.
The school district's attorney, Sean Courtney, wrote in an email to the AP that only one student was accused of misconduct, according to statements from witnesses. Courtney said that student has been suspended from school "pending the conclusion of the disciplinary process." Following district policy, Courtney did not release the student's name. Payton didn't want to release her son's name.
Courtney said there was no report of any racially-insensitive language or any indication of what the motivation may have been.
Some Stone County residents said it sounded like a prank among teenagers who might not know Mississippi's history of lynchings.
Others say it's a chilling reminder that, as Mississippi native William Faulkner said: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
"There needs to be punishment severe enough to discourage others from doing this," said Elva Husband, a 67-year-old black retiree.
About 20 percent of Stone County's 18,000 residents are black and 78 percent are white. The county is named for John Marshall Stone, a Confederate colonel from another part of the state who served a total of 12 years as Mississippi governor. It was during his second tenure in office that legislators rewrote the state constitution to disenfranchise black citizens who had gained rights during Reconstruction. In 1894, also while Stone was governor, the state adopted the flag it still uses, with the Confederate battle emblem prominently featured in the upper left corner.
The flag has been a flashpoint of debate for years, and the discussion intensified after nine worshippers at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, were shot to death in June 2015. The white man charged in the case had posed for photos holding a Confederate battle flag. Several Mississippi towns and cities, and most of the state's public universities, have stopped flying the state flag since then because of the racially divisive Confederate emblem.
This fall, Carissa Bolden, the mother of a black middle school student in Wiggins, said she has seen the state flag on the backs of white students' vehicles at Stone High School. She said she sees a connection between the flag and the noose.
"I feel like it escalated from them allowing kids to bring Confederate flags" to school, Bolden said.
Payton said that since she and her husband appeared at news conference Monday, several people have thanked her for publicly discussing what many have thought for years — that there is an underlying current of racial tension in the school.
Voncile Martin, 72, has lived in Stone County her entire life and generally thought race relations had improved in the area since the civil rights movement.
"I'm surprised it happened in Stone County," said Martin, who is black. "Maybe I shouldn't be."
As the Stone High football team practiced behind the school Tuesday evening, girls' and boys' soccer players gathered nearby for a meet-the-team night. Moms scooped potato salad, baked beans and barbecued chicken to sell for a team fundraiser, and residents — black and white, young and old — picked up meals.
Scott Maddox, who coaches soccer, said the noose incident is "a blemish on our community," but he hopes the investigation will show it wasn't done maliciously.
"It's my hope that we'll find out it was a bunch of teenagers doing what teenagers do, which is acting with stupidity," said Maddox, 60, who is white. "They didn't grow up in the '60s. They don't understand the context of it."
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.