Students sent from classroom to courtroom across Mississippi, report says

Several months after federal officials filed suit against authorities in Meridian, Miss., for 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, which four civil rights groups plan to release Thursday, comes after proposals from both the Obama administration and Mississippi leaders to provide more funding for police in schools, which advocates argue could 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 December’s mass 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.”

Advocates worry 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. Last week, 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 Wednesday would not require more police in schools but would help fund officers for school systems that want them. School also could use federal money to hire counselors, psychologists or social workers under one of the proposals. Experts are watching the situation closely.

The shootings in Newtown, Conn., produced “a sense we need to have increased police presence in schools because of the fears that Sandy Hook created in all of us,” said Russell Skiba, a professor and researcher on school discipline at Indiana University.

Unfortunately,” Skiba said, “there’s no data that says that simply adding a police presence will result in safer schools, more effective school discipline or better climate.”

In Mississippi, the Justice Department filed a complaint against city, county and state officials in late October for allegedly violating students’ due process rights and creating a pipeline to the juvenile justice system, saying children are punished “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”

African Americans and students with disabilities have been most affected, officials said. Students with probation violations have been suspended, then incarcerated, for infractions including dress-code violations, flatulence in class and vulgar language, according to the federal action. The complaint is among the first to focus on the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s in­cred­ibly important — not only because it’s our first but because we recognize it’s a problem across the country,” Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, said Wednesday.

In 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. Schools are “working very hard” to protect student rights, he said, adding that law enforcement is called only for incidents involving drugs, weapons and severe violence, as required by state law.

Federal officials did not include the school system in the complaint but sued other authorities involved — the police department, the county, two judges and the state. Several lawyers representing defendants did not return calls Wednesday.

The new report contends Meridian’s alleged practices are not an anomaly.

Called “Handcuffs on Success,” the report 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 percent of school-based arrests in the 2010-2011 school year were for conduct that seriously threatened students, staff or the school.

In Holmes County, according to the report, school officials referred a 5-year-old to police for wearing shoes that were not the required solid black color. According to the report, the principal told the boy’s mother the child was being “taught a lesson.”

Suspension rates in several Mississippi school systems are more than nine times the national average, the report says.

“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,” it says.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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