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Mississippi Criticized for Harsh Discipline Policies

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Problems with student discipline in Mississippi are far more pervasive than one county being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice over its practices, the ACLU, NAACP, the Advancement Project, and other civil rights groups say.

In a new report, the groups say Mississippi is in a school-to-prison pipeline crisis. They want state lawmakers and school districts to employ discipline policies that are research based, and to remove students from school only for the most severe offenses, reserving lesser penalties for lower-level misbehavior.

The groups refer to one Mississippi incident from 2000, in which high school students were playfully throwing peanuts. It resulted in five arrests for felony assault. In 2009, armed police officers responded to an argument on a school bus among three students, and a half-dozen students were arrested, the report says. It goes on to describe how, in 2010, a 5-year-old being transported home by a police officer—for violating the school dress code—was locked in the back seat of the squad car.

Overly harsh discipline policies can trigger a cycle of crime, the report says, boosting the chances that young people removed from school will drop out. They cite Mississippi's low graduation rate—ranked 6th worst in the nation by some measures—and link it to the state's high rates of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. According to the report:

"These stories begin to provide a glimpse into the devastating reality of the students and families living in Mississippi's school-to-prison pipeline. Every year across the State, zero tolerance and other overly harsh school disciplinary policies and practices push tens of thousands of students out of school, criminalizing and incarcerating students for trivial misbehaviors and normal age appropriate misconduct. And Mississippi's extreme school discipline crisis has broad-reaching effects: the harm it causes extends even beyond Mississippi's children and families, reaching out into its communities, to its teachers and law enforcement officials, and to the State at large."

In Meridian, Miss., where the Justice Department has sued multiple agencies including the city, county, youth court judges, and the state, the lawsuit says children are routinely jailed for minor offenses, including school discipline incidents, and are punished disproportionately without due process. Black students and students with disabilities are especially affected.

The new report cites federal data that show that in about 115 Mississippi school districts, black students were three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than whites. The number was even higher in certain districts.

In Meridian, the Justice Department says that children are arrested in school and incarcerated for days without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity of their alleged offense; regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing in violation of federal constitutional rights; and make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their right to remain silent.

The defendants have denied the allegations in court records, the Associated Press reports. The city of Meridian said in a court filing in November that before the lawsuit was filed, city officials asked for examples of specific violations "to allow the city to take corrective measures if warranted." The city said it was only provided "bare bones" conclusions with no examples.

"The needless criminalization of Mississippi's most valuable asset—its children—must be dealt with immediately by school leaders and the communities they serve, said Nancy Kohsin Kintigh, of the ACLU of Mississippi, in a written statement. "Zero-tolerance policies... are being used to send children home for trivial things that should be solved in the principal's office."

Take a look at this piece about the evolution of school discipline policy, which was part of this year's Quality Counts.

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