Published Online: January 22, 2013
Published in Print: January 23, 2013, as Civil Rights Groups: Discipline Excessive in Miss. Schools

Civil Rights Groups: Discipline Excessive in Miss. Schools

Arrests for minor infractions common

Student-discipline policies and practices in Mississippi are sending thousands of students into the juvenile-court system for school-based infractions, including students who are arrested for nonviolent behavior, a new report from a civil rights group says.

In "Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools," the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, the Washington-based Advancement Project, and other groups last week called for a fresh approach to discipline across the state.

They cite districts in which more than 20 or 30 students per 1,000 are referred to juvenile detention centers for school-based infractions. In some cases, the students are not of high school age and include 2nd and 3rd graders. Often, the arrests are triggered by misdemeanors, their data show.

The organizations say the problem extends beyond the borders of Meridian, Miss., the target of an ongoing federal lawsuit over school discipline practices. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against that city, the county in which it is located, youth-court judges, and the state department of education for fostering what it describes as a school-to-prison pipeline in the area.

The suit claims children are routinely jailed for minor offenses, including school discipline incidents, and that they are punished at levels and rates disproportionate to their offenses and without due process. Black students and students with disabilities are especially affected.

Push for Change

"We knew we had to do something to bring a bigger spotlight into this situation," said Nancy Kohsin-Kintigh, the program director of the ACLU of Mississippi. Her organization has spent time educating students and parents about their rights and state laws governing youth detention and school discipline, but the group hasn't seen changes in how students have been treated, she said.

The day the report was released, a Mississippi legislative committee spent the morning listening to the civil rights groups, and Ms. Kohsin-Kintigh said she is hopeful that, at a minimum, the legislature will take up bills dealing with data collection about school discipline incidents and training for law-enforcement officers in working with youths and schools.

Student arrests are often coUpled with or preceded by out-of-school suspensions or expulsions, also a problem area for the state, the report says. Citing federal Department of Education data, in 115 Mississippi school districts, black students were shown to be three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white students.

Overly harsh discipline policies can trigger a cycle of crime, the report says, boosting chances young people removed from school will drop out. They cite Mississippi's low graduation rate—ranked 6th worst in the nation by some measures—and link it to the state's high rates of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.

The Mississippi department of education did not return a request for comment about the report by press time.

Peanut Felonies

The groups refer to one Mississippi incident from 2000, in which high school students were throwing peanuts, that resulted in five arrests for felony assault. In 2009, armed police officers responded to an argument on a school bus among three students, and a half-dozen students were arrested, the report says. It describes how, in 2010, a 5-year-old was transported home by a police officer—for violating school dress code—locked in the back seat of a police car.

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The overly harsh punishments for some students rob them of educational opportunities, said Derrick Johnson, the president of the Mississippi NAACP, whereas the groups' recommendations give students an opportunity for a safe and productive learning environment. Routing students to the correctional system and raising the state's dropout rate hurts Mississippi's economy, so a shift in policy is in the public interest, he said.

The groups are asking that school districts adopt more graduated discipline policies, with punishment that escalates in proportion to students' infractions, and in which arrests and referrals to juvenile courts are limited sharply. Schools should be required to track discipline data disaggregated by offense, race, gender, age, and other factors; report those statistics to the state; and make them public. The groups also want the state to provide grants and training about alternatives to suspension for school districts. For law enforcement, training about their role in school discipline policies must be required.

"It's time," Ms. Kohsin-Kintigh said, "for us to change the conversation."

Vol. 32, Issue 18, Page 7

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