Federal mediators and public school administrators in Meridian, Miss., have reached a landmark agreement to launch a rewards-based disciplinary plan, aimed at keeping in the classroom more black students who routinely received harsher disciplinary action when accused of relatively minor infractions.
The March 22 consent decree outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice awaits a federal court's final approval. Seen as a potential precursor to how that federal agency may resolve its present investigation of similar complaints in Seattle -- and trailing a similar 2012 agreement between the Justice Department and Oakland Unified School District in California -- the Meridian order comes as school-reform advocates across the country have spent roughly a decade trying to dismantle what they label as a school-to-prison pipeline.
"There are a combination of factors that lead to this overuse of suspensions and the criminalization of young people," civil rights lawyer Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project, said. "One, we live in a high-stakes testing environment where schools are so focused on tests scores that they're not [sufficiently] focused on kids. It gives a perverse incentive to push out kids who are having academic problems.
"It fosters an environment where educators have less tolerance. We definitely have implicit bias that works against children, where young people are being targeted differently, especially black boys."
Still pending is a federal lawsuit filed in October 2012 against the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court and the state of Mississippi. In it, the Justice Department alleges that those entities systematically violated the due process rights of students whom the school district referred to law enforcement.
The Justice Department's investigation noted that black students in Meridian, where 61 percent of the city's roughly 41,000 residents are black, "frequently received harsher disciplinary consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages and had similar disciplinary histories."
Based on national data reported by 72,000 schools that educate a total of 85 percent of all students, a March 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found that black students made up 18 percent of students sampled, 35 percent of those temporarily suspended, 39 percent of those permanently expelled and 46 percent of those suspended more than once. The data profiled kindergarten through high school students.
Most suspensions or expulsions involve middle and high school youths, according to a Council of State Governments Justice Center 2012 report.
Still, spotlighting what many say is the complex issue of how to handle undisciplined kids -- including those from homes that are dysfunctional or impoverished or both -- was the 2009 case of a 5-year-old Florida girl handcuffed by police after ripping paper, climbing atop a table and repeatedly punching an educator in class. In a 2012 case, police arrested a 6-year-old Georgia girl, charging her with simple assault and damage to property after she threw a temper tantrum. Once in the principal's office, she began to fight police, they said.
"These sorts of stories are so frequent now, it's almost like an archetype," said Don Cipriani, director of the New York City-based Public Interest Project's Just and Fair Schools Fund, adding that certain stereotypes are at play in some of the cases.
"What is the image projected in the mass media, in pop culture? It's that [black kids] are demons, little Satans. 'Lock them up forever,' " Cipriani said. "That mentality has spread into our schools."
Attorney Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, said in a statement that the concerns triggering the Meridian consent decree -- and an ongoing federal lawsuit against local courts and law-enforcement officials who allegedly disproportionately detained black students and remanded them to juvenile-detention centers -- were "reminiscent of these historic battles over access to public education." The NAACP applauds the Justice Department's order.
What's more, say school-reform advocates such as the Advancement Project's Dianis and Public Interest Project's Cipriani, suspended and expelled students are more likely to fail, drop out, wind up behind bars and be relegated to lifelong poverty.
Katti Gray specializes in covering criminal justice, health care, higher education and human resources. She is a contributing editor at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in New York City.