Report: Mississippi school discipline too hard on kidsCivil rights advocates say harsh disciplinary practices at many Mississippi schools lead to children being expelled and even incarcerated for minor infractions, policies that disproportionally affect minorities.
By: Holbrook Mohr, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Civil rights advocates say harsh disciplinary practices at many Mississippi schools lead to children being expelled and even incarcerated for minor infractions, policies that disproportionally affect minorities.
A joint report by groups including the ACLU and NAACP says the problems are more widespread than just the city of Meridian, where the U.S. Justice Department has filed a suit claiming officials are running a "school-to-prison pipeline" for minor infractions.
The groups say the Meridian lawsuit is just one example of a problem "that has plagued Mississippi schools statewide for years." The report was a joint project of the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse and the Advancement Project. They plan to discuss it at an 11 a.m. CST news conference Thursday.
The report comes less than three months after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jackson alleging that students in the southeastern city of Meridian have been sent to juvenile detention for infractions such as flatulence or dress code violations, and that mostly black and disabled children are affected.
The defendants in the lawsuit deny the allegations and the city said in court records that the police department amended its arrest policies before the suit was filed. The youth court judges in Lauderdale County also denied the allegations in court documents.
The new report says many schools in Mississippi use zero-tolerance policies and students end up incarcerated or kicked out of school "often for the most trivial misbehaviors."
"Whether it is a dress code violation, profane language, or a schoolyard scuffle, young people are being herded into juvenile detention centers and into the revolving door of the criminal justice system," the report says.
The report also cites a study of 115 school districts in Mississippi that found black students were three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than whites and the number was higher in certain districts.
"Among Mississippi's school districts, several have the dishonor of maintaining out-of-school suspension rates that are over 9 times higher than the national average," the report says.
Justice Department officials have said there are similar problems at some schools throughout the country. At a news conference about the Meridian lawsuit in October, Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general, said there are other "school-to-prison pipelines" in the United States. But the Meridian lawsuit was the first time the civil rights division sued based on those allegations.
Sometimes, the groups say, very young children face frightening and harsh punishment for minor infractions.
In one example, a law enforcement officer in Holmes County escorted a 5-year-old boy home in the back of his patrol car for violating the school's dress code, the report says. The report says the school required black shoes and his mother had tried to use a black marker to cover red and white symbols.
"When she followed up with her son's principal, he justified his actions by telling her that her son needed to be 'taught a lesson,'" the report says.
In Meridian, the Justice Department alleges that police routinely arrest students without determining whether there is probable cause anytime a school wants to press charges. Once arrested, the students end up on probation. Future school infractions like tardiness or "flatulence in class" could be considered a violation that requires them to serve the suspension incarcerated in the juvenile detention center, according to the Justice Department.
The defendants have denied the allegations in court records. The city of Meridian said in a court filing in November that before the lawsuit was filed, city officials asked for examples of specific violations "to allow the city to take corrective measures if warranted." The city said it was only provided "bare bones" conclusions with no examples.
This city also said that it told the Justice Department weeks before the lawsuit was filed that the Meridian Police Department amended its policy so that officers would only respond to calls from the school for felonies, "physical violence, weapons, illegal drugs" or a judge's order. Also, officers are no longer supposed to transport a juvenile from school grounds unless the officer witnessed the offense.
Lauderdale County youth court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young also denied the allegations in court filings.
In a court filing on Dec. 7, the judges said they "never" revoke a student's probation or parole for tardiness or absences alone and that they follow Mississippi law.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and DHS's Division of Youth Services.
The Meridian Public School District is not named as a defendant, but the lawsuit says incarceration is used as a "medium for school discipline."