According to The Washington Post, following the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) suit against Meridian, Mississippi officials accusing them of operating a “school-to-prison pipeline,” a new report cites harsh school discipline practices across the state that it contends have steered students into the justice system. The report, “Handcuffs on Success,” which is the work of four civil rights groups, comes on the heels of proposals from the Obama administration and Mississippi leaders calling for increased funding for police in schools. The groups argue that an increased police presence in schools will make the problem worse.
The developments in Mississippi appear to reflect a simmering tension between efforts across the country to end harsh forms of school discipline and a surge of interest in beefing up security after the December 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. “It really could exacerbate the problem in Mississippi, which we know is at crisis proportions,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of the organizations releasing the new report. “Young people would be more apt to be arrested with the added presence of law enforcement at schools.”
The civil rights groups are concerned that an influx of police into the schools could affect efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions, police citations at school and referrals of students to law enforcement. A coalition of youth, education, civil rights, and other groups cautioned the White House against proposals to put armed guards or police in schools. The Obama administration plan unveiled would not require more police in schools but would help fund officers for school systems that want them.
The DOJ suit filed in October 2012 alleges county and state officials have violated students’ due process rights and created a pipeline to the juvenile justice system, saying children are punished “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.” According to DOJ officials, African American students and students with disabilities have been most affected. “It’s incredibly important — not only because it’s our first but because we recognize it’s a problem across the country,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
Meridian School Superintendent Alvin Taylor said his school system is cooperating with federal officials, and that disciplinary policies changed in 2011 when he took over. DOJ did not include the school system in the complaint but sued other authorities involved, i.e., the police department, the county, two judges and the state.
The new report contends Meridian’s alleged practices are not an anomaly. It asserts that zero-tolerance and other harsh discipline approaches “fail to make schools safer” and push tens of thousands of students out of classes, sometimes with police involvement.
The report says that in Jackson Public Schools, just 4% of school-based arrests in the 2010-2011 school year were for conduct that seriously threatened students, staff, or the school. It also states that suspension rates in several Mississippi school systems are more than nine times the national average. “Mississippi students are also more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students in its neighboring states of Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Texas or Arkansas,” the report says.
Source: The Washington Post, 1/17/13, By Donna St. George
[Editor's Note: "Handcuffs on Success" is the product of the Advancement Project, American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, and Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse. In its executive summary, it states:
"This report discusses the ways in which these extreme and destructive approaches to school discipline not only have directly harmed students and families, but also have caused teachers, law enforcement officials, and community members to have their lives and careers made more difficult by these ineffective and counter-productive school discipline policies and practices. Furthermore, the entire state of Mississippi has suffered damage to its economic health and well-being. Given this, the State should eliminate its school-to-prison pipeline, and this report provides recommendations for how it should begin to do so."
The report is divided into five sections: (1) a brief background on the current state of school discipline in Mississippi; (2) an examination of how these harsh school disciplinary practices have undermined the work of Mississippi educators and overall progress in the state education system; (3) a discussion of how misguided measures harm law enforcement personnel and overall public health and safety; (4) a discussion addressing how harsh discipline weakens Mississippi's economy and is costly to its taxpayers; and (5) a proposal of five recommendations for Mississippi state legislators.
In December 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Meridian Star, which reported that Superintendent Taylor said he started making discipline policy changes almost immediately when he began his job in July 2011, months before DOJ started its investigation of allegations of students in trouble with the judicial system being deprived of their constitutional rights.]