On Tuesday's Know-It-All: The ABCs of Education, I was joined by Ryan Wilson and Zoe Savitsky, the Department of Justice civil rights attorneys who negotiated the terms of an historic student discipline agreement between DOJ, the private plaintiffs, and the Meridian, Mississippi public school district. The March 22 agreement ends the disproportionate disciplinary exclusion and arrest of black children from school for minor infractions.
Over the course of their investigation, Wilson and Savitsky found that, during the 2011-2012 school year, the district utilized in-school and out-of-school suspensions to account for 79 percent of all discipline consequences. There were significant racial disparities in student discipline referrals and black students received harsher punishments than white students of the same age, for the same conduct, in the same school, and with similar discipline histories. The agreement requires the Meridian Public School District “to administer discipline without discrimination on the basis of race and in a manner that does not perpetuate or further the segregation of students on the basis of race” in compliance with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.
The Meridian agreement is a thing of beauty. If implemented with fidelity and monitored carefully, it will ensure that all students are treated equitably and that their educators are focused on providing students with "an equal opportunity to learn in a safe, orderly, and supportive environment."
The agreement details micro-level adjustments that educators and student caretakers in the school district must make in order to treat all students equitably in compliance with federal law. The notion behind this level of detail is that habits will form around behaviors that are based in equity. Even the most reluctant educator who complies with the terms of this agreement will treat all students equitably, no matter the stereotypes or negative beliefs the educator holds...and maybe, just maybe, their minds will eventually change too.
The agreement is worthy of celebratory pause as victories like this are rare. But our pause must be brief, because the agreement is only the beginning of a long journey towards addressing these issues.
One of the many lessons the black community learned from Brown v. Board is that we cannot believe that the federal government's work is the heavy lifting, that a court order is the end of the story. Though the law, embodied today in the Meridian agreement and in 1954 in the Brown decision, looks the way we want it to for the moment, it has merely opened the door for hard-core, focused advocacy fueled by the particulars of the decree. Advocates, youth, and communities now have to ride the momentum of the Meridian agreement and do the difficult work necessary to make sure that the spirit of the agreement is reflected in the treatment of black students and, importantly, in the perception of black students.
So, what is there still to do if the agreement seems to do it all? We have to build a movement to create real and lasting change. And, while any movement can take its cues from federal action or inaction, we must recognize that, despite so-called checks and balances, federal law is subject to political winds because it cannot stay connected to local needs. A sustained movement requires the persistent, coordinated effort of folks on the ground. The students, parents, and community members in Meridian came together across invisible affiliation boundaries of church, politics, even race to claim their schools and demand equity for their children.
And it is the children who must lead this movement. Children know intuitively what they want and need to be successful. In Meridian, it was the youth who provided the information that ultimately led to the extraordinary specifics in the Meridian agreement such as what the district can and cannot do with and to students in in-school suspension classrooms or at the alternative school. It was the students who showed the most bravery, allowing DOJ attorneys into their homes and sharing very painful experiences with the suited strangers. It was the students who could laugh with irony at the often ridiculous nature of adult responses to child behavior.
Indeed, the youth never had any doubt, especially the students who had spent time in the juvenile detention center; the students who couldn't afford the school uniforms and were arrested for wearing the wrong thing; the students who showed up to school everyday despite being arrested or suspended from school or banished to in-school suspension more often than they were allowed to remain in the regular classroom; even the students who recalled committing some small wrong by farting in class or talking back to their teacher or not looking their teacher in the eye or talking to a friend during quiet time.
It was the youth who knew. They knew the punishments they were given did not fit their transgressions. The youth haven't been lulled to sleep by corporate agenda that have re-defined criminality to fill prisons and lined executive pockets with taxpayer dollars in the name of school choice.
Youth still have their instincts fully intact and it is time for us to get out of their way, to be the wind that buffets the movement, to craft remedies that reflect what the youth tell us they need - positive behavior reinforcement rather than suffocating punitive discipline, creative learning opportunities and exposure to the world, culturally relevant classroom lessons that reveal their empowering history and heritage and lessons they can put their hands on and explore with their bodies, time out of the school building for field trips and exploration.
The adults in Meridian have lived through years of racial hell and are understandably skeptical about what the consent order can do to change white minds that are filled with hate and fear, and black minds that have adopted that mindset as their reality too. But the children know that it can be different and that it must be.