Discriminatory discipline: Feds and Mississippi school district reach agreement on changes

Cops were "taxi service" to jail; black students suspended far more than whites for same allegations

By

 Updated:

A Mississippi school district under scrutiny for excessive punishment of black students has reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to enact new disciplinary policies, train school police officers in “bias-free” policing and stop involving officers in minor campus behavioral disputes.

“We commend the Meridian Public School District for taking this huge stop toward ensuring that its schools are safe and welcoming to all students – and that education is a road to success instead of a pipeline to prison,” said Jocelyn Samuels, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Right Division.

At a Friday briefing with reporters, Samuels said the division hopes that school districts nationwide will look to the Meridian agreement as a model for addressing complaints of overly harsh and sometimes racially disproportionate discipline.  As the Center for Public Integrity reported previously, Meridian, Miss., police told federal investigators that they were functioning as a “taxi service” to ferry students to jail for allegations of defiance and disrespect.

Separately, the civil rights division still is pursuing a lawsuit it filed last October against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services. The suit alleges that criminal-justice and law-enforcement officials were jailing students for days without probable cause hearings and without sufficient access to counsel to explain their rights.

Samuels said the division hopes that “by virtue of implementation of the consent decree,” Meridian’s school district will now stop sending so many students to jails and into the criminal-justice system.

“Some of the infractions we saw (in Meridian) were failure to tuck in one’s shirt,” Samuels said.

She and other division attorneys detailed what they found in an investigation that stemmed from parents’ complaints of disproportionate suspensions and arrests of Meridian’s black students. About 86 percent of the district’s 6,100 students are African-American.

Federal attorneys found that Meridian’s black students were five times more likely to be removed from school as punishment than white students referred to supervisors because of comparable disciplinary problems.

The new agreement, or consent decree, to make changes in Meridian’s disciplinary policies must now be ratified by a U.S. district court. The plan is to incorporate it into an existing federal school desegregation decree that goes back to the 1960s.

In a statement, the Meridian Public School District said its board of trustees unanimously approved entering into the consent decree with the Department of Justice and private plaintiffs.

 “Discipline, in the past, has been more assertive and focused on consequences,” Meridian Public School District Superintendent Alvin Taylor said. “But now we will look into the cause of student behavior and put measures into place to help prevent those misbehaviors.”

The district this year began to employ a “positive behavioral intervention and support” model for dealing with student misbehavior.  The idea is to reward good behavior, and to use counseling and other types of intervention to get to the root causes of students’ problems at school.

The consent agreement spells out, in detail, alternatives to be taken prior to resorting to suspensions of students and a system of appeals and meetings to ensure progress toward improving behavior. It also places specific limits on police intervention in Meridian’s schools.

The agreement says: “Incidents involving public order offenses committed by students, including disorderly conduct, disturbance/disruption of schools or public assembly, loitering, trespass, profanity, dress code violations, and fighting that does not involve physical injury or a weapon, shall be considered school discipline issues to be handled by school officials, rather than criminal law issues warranting MPD (Meridian Police Department) involvement, unless MPD involvement is necessary to protect the physical safety of students or school personnel, or public safety.”