Civil rights groups in the United States released a report claiming that harsh punishments at schools across Mississippi have led to a disproportionate number of minority students being suspended, expelled, and jailed for minor infractions.
“The needless criminalization of Mississippi’s most valuable asset – its children – must be dealt with immediately by school leaders and the communities they serve,” said Nancy Kohsin Kintigh, the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Program Director for Mississippi, in a statement.
“Zero-tolerance policies were originally designed to protect students from individuals who pose a threat on school grounds. Instead, they are being used to send children home for trivial things that should be solved in the principal’s office,” she said.
“Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools,” the report released by the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups, finds children have been harshly punished for violating school dress codes and other similar behaviors.
It also claims black students are affected by harsh discipline procedures at a much greater rate than white students, and cites a study of more than a hundred Mississippi school districts that finds for every one white student who is given an out-of-school suspension, three black students are suspended, even though black students comprise just half of the student population.
The report details several specific examples including:
· Students playfully throwing peanuts at one another on a school bus ended in five black male high school students being arrested for felony assault after one of the peanuts hit the white female bus driver.
· A five-year-old boy taken from his school by police and transported to his home for violating the school dress code, which requires black shoes. His mother had used a black marker to cover red and white decorations on the shoes, but some of the decorations could be seen.
· A student who was sent to a juvenile detention center for wearing the wrong color socks, considered to be a probation violation from a previous fight.
The report follows a lawsuit filed in October by the US Department of Justice, which accuses officials in Meridian, Mississippi, including two youth-court judges, of operating a “school-to-prison pipeline” that pushes children out of school and into the criminal justice system.
The defendants named in the lawsuit have denied the charges, according to The Associated Press.
According to the report, “The school-to-prison pipeline is nothing new in Mississippi and it is certainly not unique to Meridian. In fact, it is a problem that has plagued Mississippi schools statewide for years.”
In “Handcuffs on Success,” the authors make a series of recommendations to Mississippi state legislators, including a more graduated approach to discipline rather than a strict, zero-tolerance policy for minor violations, and saving the most severe consequences such as arrests, referrals to detention centers, and long-term suspensions, for only serious infractions that threaten school safety.
“We encourage Mississippi legislators and education officials to consider commonsense, tested policies that improve school quality, public safety and economic prosperity,” said Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director of the Advancement Project, one of the other groups that released the report.
“Implementing a graduated approach to discipline, and using non-punitive measures focused on preventing misbehavior by providing supportive interventions, have been proven to reduce suspensions and expulsions while creating safe, effective learning environments for our youth,” she added in a statement.