The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for Advancement of Colored People have a released a report that accuses the state of Mississippi not only of being overly harsh in its student discipline methods but also for disproportionately targeting minority students for their harshest punishments.
The report looks at schools beyond the city of Meridian, against whom the U.S. Justice Department recently filed a lawsuit. The groups claim that Meridian is just one example of systematic problems in Mississippi schools that have been swept under the rug for decades.
The report blames the schools' zero tolerance policies that lead to high rates of expulsions, suspension and even arrests of students for relatively mild infractions. Included among those are dress code violations, bad language or an argument at recess.
The report also cites a study of 115 school districts in Mississippi that found black students were three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than whites and the number was higher in certain districts. The Mississippi Department of Education said in a statement Thursday that school districts "establish their own discipline policies" but the department urged them "to set policies that ensure all children are treated fairly."
Among the incidents that have made news was that of a 5-year-old student in Holmes County who was sent home in a police car for a dress code violation. The school required wearing black shoes as part of its uniform, and the student's mother unsuccessfully attempted to conceal red and white markings on his shoes with a black magic marker.
Although over the years a number of states have been found to have discipline policy issues, according to the Justice Department, the Meridian lawsuit is the first of its kind. In its response, however, city officials say that the lawsuit has no merit and the Justice Department has not provided a specific list of incidents that have drawn its scrutiny.
The defendants claim that prior to the lawsuit being filed, the guidelines for police response had been already modified. Now officers won't come to the school for any incident that is not a felony, an incident of physical violence, weapons or an order from a judge.
Lauderdale County youth court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young also denied the allegations, saying they never revoke a student's probation or parole for tardiness or absences alone and that they follow Mississippi law. The defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and DHS's Division of Youth Services.