When it comes to overly punative school discipline policies, Meridian, Mississippi, arguably leads the pack.
But a new federal consent decree filed on Friday promises to force a change in Meridian’s severe approach to punishing students—and could, say experts, provide a blueprint for school discipline reform nationwide.
In Meridian the need for reform is particularly extreme. Here students are reportedly routinely arrested for any one of a string of minor reasons. When kids are arrested, children as young as ten are taken away by police in handcuffs, and thrown into juvenile detention centers—often without being allowed access to a lawyer.
For example, one girl with a bladder disorder was arrested after she raced frantically to the restroom without getting permission from her teacher.
Other kids were arrested and incarcerated for minor dress code violations, like the wrong color socks, or for having shirts untucked.” Tardiness and “flatulence in class” could be arrest-worthy offenses, as could using “vulgar language, or yelling at teachers.”
And in an alarmingly disproportionate number of instances, the students receiving these outsized punishments were “African-American children and children with disabilities.”
After warning Meridian to clean up its act or face legal proceedings, the civil rights section of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a legal complaint in October 2012, in which they wrote in harsh tones about Meridian administrators’ “school to prison pipeline” diciplinary policies:
Collectively, Defendants engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights.
Defendants do not afford children in the juvenile justice system even the minimum procedural safeguards required by the Constitution. As a result, (1) the City of Meridian engages in a pattern or practice of arresting children in school without probable cause; (2) Lauderdale County and the Youth Court Judges engage in a pattern or practice of authorizing the repeated incarceration of children without essentials of fairness and due process such as a timely hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to detain them, and meaningful representation by an attorney; (3) the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, Lauderdale County, and the Youth Court Judges engage in a pattern or practice of placing children on probation and incarcerating children for alleged probation violations without affording children constitutionally required protections such as reasonable opportunities to understand their probation requirements or hearings to challenge alleged probation violations that could result in incarceration; and (4) Defendants collectively engage in a pattern or practice of imposing disproportionate and severe consequences, including incarceration, for technical probation violations such as school suspensions, without any due process whatsoever.
Defendants’ concerted actions punish children in Meridian, Mississippi so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience, and deprive these children of liberty and educational opportunities on an ongoing basis.
In January, the Advancement Project issued its own report titled: HANDCUFFS ON SUCCESS: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools. The report made clear that the habit of criminalizing kids as young as five was not exclusive to Meridian but was happening all over the state of Mississippi.
THE FEDS LAY DOWN A LIST OF RULES WITH A CONSENT DECREE
After conducting an investigation that began in December 2011, the Feds gave local officials plenty of time to make progress toward correcting the most harmful of the issues before beginning with legal proceedings. But, instead of complying, Meridian officials reportedly tried to keep documents away from the DOJ people.
So the lawsuit was filed last October, followed five months later by the consent decree that was filed last Friday.
The following is from the DOJ press release announcing the move:
“The American dream is rooted in education. In Meridian, that dream has long been delayed by discipline practices that deny students access to education,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We commend the Meridian Public School District for taking this huge step 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.”
A BLUEPRINT FOR REFORM BEYOND MERIDIAN?
A consent decree—like the one that the Los Angeles Police Department operated under after the Rampart scandal—is basically a plea bargain in which the agency being sued avoids court proceedings by agreeing to a set of requirements.
The main terms that the Meridian consent decree lays out are the following:
· Limits exclusionary discipline such as suspension, alternative placement and expulsion, and prohibits exclusionary discipline for minor misbehavior;
· Prohibits school officials from involving law enforcement officers to respond to behavior that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures;
· Requires training for school law enforcement officers on bias-free policing, child and adolescent development and age appropriate responses, practices proven to improve school climate, mentoring and working with school administrators;
· Revises policies at the district’s alternative school to create clear entry and exit criteria and provide appropriate supports to speed students’ transitions back to their home schools;
· Requires enhanced due process protections in student discipline hearings
· Expands use of a behavior and discipline management system known as positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) at all schools;
· Requires teachers and administrators to use developmentally appropriate tiered prevention and intervention strategies before removing students from instruction;
· Requires monitoring of discipline data to identify and respond to racial disparities
· Requires training on all revised policies and procedures, and
· Implements measures to engage families and communities as partners in revising policies and as participants in regular school and community informational forums.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Many youth advocates hope that the full 44-page consent decree, which expands on the points made above, can act as an instructive model that any school district can use as a blueprint for its own reforms.
“This is really an incredible document,” Miriam Krinsky, policy consultant for the California Endowment, told me on Friday. (Note: Krinsky is also the executive director for LA’s Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.) “It provides a detailed and thoughtful roadmap for elements of best practices that can be incorporated in school discipline reforms around the nation.”
A look at the still depressingly high suspension and drop out rates that plague too many American school districts makes it clear that reforms are badly needed.
“Even one court appearance during high school increases a child’s likelihood of dropping out of school,” writes the DOJ. “And court appearances are especially detrimental to children with no or minimal previous history of delinquency.”
Photo from the Advancement Project’s report, “Handcuffs on Success”