ACLU Gets Funds to Study School Discipline in Missouri


The American Civil Liberties Union has received a $350,000 grant to monitor how Mississippi schools decide on and deliver punishment to students, resulting from charges of a disproportionate use of harsher punishments on disabled and minority K-12 students.

Punishments like restraint and seclusion, writes Emily Le Coz of The Clarion-Ledger, will receive attention through a 2-year study funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s grant. Not only will extreme punishments be studied, but leaders in the education arena will be engaged to assist in phasing out these practices in favor of more positive, effective techniques.

“No child should be subject to abuse, particularly at school,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Schools are supposed to be a safe place conducive to learning, not to torture.”

Children with disabilities are almost six times as likely to to be restrained in school than their able-bodied peers, according to Riley-Collins.  Earlier in this year, the Clarion-Ledger investigated special education practices and found that at least 30 districts used physical restraint, mechanical restraint, or seclusion — and in some cases all three — to “control” children with special needs. During the 2009-2010 school year, the year with the most recent available statistics housed with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 329 incidents of this type of punishment were reported.

Riley-Collins is of the opinion that this type of information is often under-reported. In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Jackson Public School District for chaining a teen with ADHD to a pole. There was another such incident that same year in the district.

“As many reports have documented, the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a letter to school districts urging them to review their policies on the practices.

“Furthermore,” Duncan said, “there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

Though no laws in place in Mississippi regulating the use of seclusion and restraint at school, an attempt to address the issue failed earlier this year. The bill would have stopped certain punishments and defined when it was acceptable to use others, but it died in the House. Riley-Collins is hopeful it will pass in the 2015 legislative session. She adds that the ACLU of Mississippi will do its part in monitoring and gathering data until then.

Mississippi is one of only five states that lack any type of regulation against the use of these disciplinary practices. Mike McDaniel of WDAM-TV says that the ACLU will be engaging “civic, community, corporate, and congregational leaders, promote public awareness, monitor use of restraint and seclusion in school districts, and advocate for the implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports that are safe, effective, and evidence-based.”

This is not the first time the ACLU has stepped in to spotlight the rights of Mississippi’s children. It has produced several reports which have exposed extreme and negative approaches to classroom behavior that it says have been destructive to students, their families, and teachers.

In a preemptive move against wrongful punishment in Kansas City, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri issued a letter to the principal of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, explaining that punishing students who protested at the school would be unconstitutional, says Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star. Last week during a speech by Gov. Jay Nixon, a group of students rose from their seats and then raised their hands in the air in an apparent protest over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The students were not disruptive and left a short time after they stood.

Whether the students left as a part of their protest or were asked to leave is unclear. The students were told they would face some sort of disciplinary action, which the ACLU finds inappropriate and unconstitutional.

“The Academy should embrace and applaud its students for thinking independently and possessing the courage of their convictions,” the letter said. “Standing up to a powerful government official in a peaceful, respectful way is a sign of mature and thoughtful participation in civil discourse.”

Concerning the incident, the governor said he understood the students’ protest, but, in his opinion, the punishment for the students should be left up to the school’s officials.