What Will Cause a School to Be Labeled as Racist?

In Meridian, Mississippi, black students are five times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

After many complaints, Meridian schools have made changes to their disciplinary policies. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

At least one school district in Mississippi is on the right track to ending unfair disciplinary practices against minorities, thanks to a court order.

The state has come under fire by civil rights organizations and even the Justice Department for harsh disciplinary tactics, including suspending black students for minor infractions. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division launched an investigation into a brutal “school-to-prison pipeline,” where children faced repeated incarceration and abuse for the smallest misdeeds.

After thorough investigation, the Meridian Public School District, along with the Justice Department, filed a proposed order in District Court to change the way the school district punishes students.

An earlier investigation of Meridian schools showed that if a black student was referred out of a classroom for misbehavior, he was five times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than a white student.

The court order prohibits using suspensions for minor misconduct such as dress code violations. It also prohibits involving law enforcement in disciplinary issues that the schools can handle safely themselves. It must also train school police officers in “bias-free” policing.

“As a criminologist who has done research on racial disparities in school discipline and having served as an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice on a similar case, I believe this consent decree will be productive for the Meridian students,” Kelly Welch, an associate professor at Villanova University’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, told TakePart.

Welch said that schools using law enforcement officers to address acts of youthful disorder, especially those acts done by minorities, “were essentially criminalizing students for things that administrators traditionally handle.”

Representatives for the school district said they started new policies even before the court order. School officials said the district now has a “positive behavioral intervention and support” model for handling student misbehavior. Students now get rewarded for good behavior and counselors are trying to find the root causes of a student’s problem at school before administering discipline.  

The order also states that school officials must regularly evaluate classrooms and school level discipline data and respond appropriately to the findings including addressing racial disparities. The order also requires that school officials inform parents in decisions about student behavior and any punishment such as expulsion.

Starting in the 2013-14 school year, the Meridian Public School District must also host two student assemblies each school year to “to communicate positive core values and behavioral expectations” and to explain discipline policies and Code of Conduct. The district will also host informational seminars for parents about discipline practices, and parents will be free to ask questions of the district.

The school district cannot give an out-of-school suspense to a student under the age of ten unless there is a severe infraction or an emergency situation that involves a serious and immediate threat to a “student, teacher, or public safety.”

The Department of Justice also ordered that the district revise its disciplinary policies this semester and submit the revisions for review.

“This decision in Mississippi is a positive move toward decreasing a number of possible negative outcomes,” Welch said.

But for all the positive changes, Mississippi still has a long way to go.

There’s still a pending lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services that alleges that law-enforcement officials were jailing students for days without probable cause hearings and without sufficient access to counsel to explain their rights.

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