News Column

Mississippi Schools Bashed for Harsh Discipline

Jan. 17, 2013

Ron Maxey

Mississippi schools routinely employ harsh disciplinary practices for minor offenses and in the process are creating a "pipeline to prison" culture that harms education and the state's economy, charges a report by several advocacy groups released Thursday.

The report, Handcuffs on Success, says school districts throughout the state have demonstrated a pattern of exercising overly harsh disciplinary measures, including expulsion and arrest, for offenses as minor as dress code violations. In doing so, the report says educators are undermining their own efforts to improve Mississippi's relatively poor educational performance that includes a statewide graduation rate of only 61 percent, sixth lowest among the 50 states.

"These practices not only exclude students from the classroom thereby reducing learning opportunities, but even worse, Mississippi's children are being trapped in a pipeline to prison, too often for the most trivial misbehaviors," states the report, which is being presented during an 11 a.m. news conference in Jackson on Thursday.

The report was written by the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP, the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse and the Advancement Project.

Incidents throughout the state, including DeSoto County, are cited in the report as examples of unnecessarily severe disciplinary practices -- practices that, the report alleges, affect minority students in disproportionate numbers. Referring to a 2009 school bus incident in Southaven, the report claims that "armed police officers responded to an argument between three students on a school bus by reportedly arresting a half dozen black students, choking and tackling one black female student and threatening to shoot the other students on the bus between their eyes."

A lawsuit resulting from the incident, reported at the time, was settled in August 2009, but details of the settlement were never revealed.

The report recommends state legislators take five steps to address the problem, including implementation of policies that take a graduated approach to discipline, greater transparency through quarterly reports from local districts documenting disciplinary incidents, a grant program to help districts develop "positive school climates," greater collaboration between parties in each community and better training.

DeSoto school officials took exception to being cited in the report, saying they already have procedures in place to address the types of statewide issues cited in the report.

Dr. Valmadge Towner, director of pupil services for DeSoto County Schools, said the district, for example, has a Code of Discipline with graduated levels of punishment already in place. Without specifically referencing the Southaven school bus incident cited in the report, Towner also said that when law enforcement officials become involved in a situation, their rules apply.

"Law enforcement is trained to act in these situations," Towner said by e-mail. "Teachers and bus drivers are not equipped or expected to endanger themselves and other students."

Towner also criticized use of the "pipeline to prison" terminology in relation to the DeSoto district, the state's largest public district, which typically performs above state averages.

"'Pipeline to prison' is a terrible term to use because it says school officials do not care when (actually) great care and effort goes into being proactive and diffusing many situations before they erupt into fighting."

Thursday's report follows an October U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Meridian, Lauderdale County, two youth court judges, the state and two state agencies. The Justice Department charged in the suit that the defendants were "engaging in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct" through which they routinely and systematically arrested and incarcerated children.

"Among other disturbing facts," the report says in reference to the Justice Department suit, "the complaint alleges that Meridian schools repeatedly respond to infractions such as 'disrespect,' 'refusal to follow directions' and 'profanity' by referring students to law enforcement."

The report adds that while the Meridian lawsuit is the most recent event calling attention to disciplinary concerns in Mississippi schools, the issue is "certainly not unique to Meridian." Other examples of alleged overreaching responses throughout the state, including the DeSoto County example, are then cited.

Harsh discipline is counterproductive, the report contends, because it too often removes students from a learning environment and places them in situations where they are more likely to become part of the penal system, in turn taxing the state's economy and other resources.

"The strongest predictor of later arrest among adolescent females," the report says, "is suspension, expulsion or being held back during their middle school years."

Source: (c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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