Mississippi District Enters Settlement Over Fair Discipline

The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it has reached a deal with the Meridian Public School District in Mississippi to end the disciplinary program that was harsher on minority students than on whites, ABC News reports. This is the latest development in a number of investigations conducted by federal agencies into unevenly applied school discipline after last year's report found that minority students were regularly subject to harsher punishments than their white peers for similar offenses.

The deal announced via news conference last Friday calls on the district to comply with the terms set out by a consent decree with the goal of ending discriminatory practices by the 2016-17 academic year. Prior to going into effect, the deal must be approved by a federal judge in Mississippi and, among other measures, calls for a strict limit on punishments that involve removal of students from class and that force kids to miss school.

Jocelyn Samuels, a deputy assistant attorney general, said during a news conference Friday that black students in the Meridian Public School District routinely receive more severe punishments than whites in most categories of misbehavior other than weapons and drugs violations. She commended the district for its cooperation with the Justice Department.

Samuels stressed that disciplinary problems and disparities are not unique to the city of Meridian or Mississippi and she hopes the agreement can be a guide to other school districts. Similar problems are most likely to happen at schools that have implemented harsh disciplinary policies, she said.

Samuels was referring to the March 2012 report by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education that found that while 18% of America's students were African American, they made up 39% of those who were expelled or suspended from school. After the results of the study – which looked at 72,000 students nationwide – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan vowed to investigate the five school districts where the disparity between discipline meted out to white and black students was the greatest.

Meridian was one of those districts.

"Unfortunately, today across the country, students are being pulled off the path to success by harsh disciplinary policies that are excluding students from school for minor disciplinary infractions," she said. "Students are being suspended, expelled or even arrested for school uniform violations, talking back to teachers or laughing in class."

Recently, the Department of Education announced a similar settlement with California's Oakland Unified School District, extracting promises from district officials to look at alternative means of discipline that did not take students out of the classroom for long periods to avoid putting them behind their peers in academics.

Oakland also promised to hire experts to help them design a new disciplinary system that would be race- and gender-neutral in its execution.

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