Famed and controversial former trial Lawyer Richard “Dickey” Scruggs and his son, Zach Scruggs, are working to increase adult education and workforce training awareness in Mississippi with their Oxford-based nonprofit, Second Chance Mississippi.
Scruggs rose to prominence as one of America’s fiercest trial lawyers, tackling big tobacco, asbestos companies, and representing homeowners in multiple lawsuits in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His widespread acclaim came toppling down in the wake of criminal charges of bribery conspiracy, for which he served six years in federal prison. His son, Zach Scruggs, served six months in connection to these charges.
While in prison, the elder Scruggs said he taught fellow inmates how to read and write, and taught GED classes, helping over 60 inmates earn their GED certifications. “It gave me a sense of purpose,” said Scruggs. This work would lay the groundwork for Scruggs’ and his son’s non-profit.
When he was released from prison in 2014, Richard Scruggs began volunteering, continuing to teach GED classes and tutor. After hearing a representative of Hinds Community College on Mississippi Public Broadcasting speak about the push for community colleges to enroll GED graduates, Scruggs said he reached out.
“I drove to Jackson to meet Clyde Muse and Colleen Hartfield, the former of which birthed the modern community college system in Mississippi,” Scruggs said. “They both encouraged me to create a support and advocacy group.”
Richard Scruggs said he offered help to GED and workforce training hopefuls with any and all resources, including paying the cost of testing fees and books, and even paying for individual automotive repairs and medical expenses.
He and others leading these programs recognized that many within it were of low income origins, and any obstacle could be detrimental to their quest for educational fulfillment.
Second Chance Mississippi was born. It includes Richard Scruggs, his son, and Catti Beals, a friend of Scruggs’ from his native city of Brookhaven, who serves as the director of development. The organization officially became a non-profit in 2016.
“At first, we were simply a supporting organization, going around Mississippi and speaking on the growing problems that adult education programs were facing,” Richard Scruggs said.
Soon he said he realized the best thing they could do was create one, centralized donation system for these programs within the state community college system. “We thought we would be the best vehicle for one universal donation group for community colleges,” said Zach Scruggs.
Zach Scruggs said group leaders faced challenges at first. “We were simply plugging leaks and attending to individual problems within the system at Hinds,” he said, “but we wanted to tackle the broader problems at hand.”
Roughly half of Mississippi’s adult population lacks a high school diploma. Mississippi is also second to last in workforce participation, with 47 percent of Mississippians not working. As Zach Scruggs puts it, “We want to move the dial on these numbers.”
The Second Chance Mississippi non-profit is currently partnered with seven state community colleges with 100 percent of the donations going towards the funds in place at these colleges. The actual instruction is subsidized through the state education budget, but profits raised by Second Chance raise funds for other costs of adversity that arise in the quest to earn a certification.
“We provide a $20 a week gas card for those who need it along with covering testing fees and other expenses,” said Zach Scruggs. “We are the 911 hotline for students within these programs facing obstacles of these kinds in attempting to achieve their GEDs or workforce certifications.”
The program also rewards students with $250 if they complete their specific programs of adult education. The qualification for receiving these benefits is simple: “Attitude and aptitude,” as Zach Scruggs puts it.
Since becoming a non-profit, Richard Scruggs said Second Chance Mississippi has helped a total of 453 people in achieving their educational goals. The numbers of actual certificates issued read: 144 High School equivalency certificates, 224 employable workforce certifications, and and 138 career readiness certificates.
The organization has faced its fair share of challenges, with all obstacles generally surrounding the lack of focus of state education initiatives on alternative educational programs for adults, which includes GED classes, career readiness programs, and skill training classes.
“Adult education has always been the stepchild of the state education system,” Scruggs said. “The main focus has always been upon K-12 education and higher learning institutions. It has been on the backburner, out of sight and out of mind. As a result, it has created a daunting challenge of raising awareness and concern over this problem.”
Richard and Zach Scruggs also identify a generally broad problem within the state of poor funding for the Department of Education.
Richard, Zach, and other associates of Second Chance Mississippi say they will continue to work to raise awareness and bring light to the problems surrounding adult education in Mississippi.
“We want to have this program at every community college in Mississippi,” said Zach Scruggs. “We want to raise more money, through the means of the state and private donations, for programs like this that could truly solve the problem of adults in Mississippi lacking educational certifications.”