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Miss. District Required to Adjust 'Discriminatory' Discipline Policies

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UPDATED

A new agreement aims to stop what the federal government has labeled discriminatory discipline practices in the 6,100-student Meridian, Miss., school district.

The U.S. Department of Justice said today that the school district has agreed to take a number of steps to address problems with disparities in discipline between white and black students in the district.

Among other things outlined in a consent decree signed Thursday between the district and the DOJ:

  • The district cannot use suspension, alternative school settings, or expulsion for minor misbehavior and has to limit these types of consequences all together.

  • School administrators cannot ask school law enforcement officers to respond in cases where administrators can use the school code of conduct to address behavior problems.

  • School police must be trained in bias-free policing, child and adolescent development and age-appropriate responses, mentoring, and working with school administrators.

  • The district's alternative school has to establish clear entry and exit rules and speed up students' transition back to their regular school.

  • All district schools must adopt Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, an approach that involves teaching students about expected and appropriate behavior.

  • The district must monitor discipline data to identify and respond to racial disparities.

The Justice Department said that in the predominantly African-American district, black students were three times as likely as white students to be punished after they were referred to school administrators and five times as likely to be suspended out of school. Rule-breaking by white students and black students was often handled very differently, with black students typically facing harsher punishment even when their offenses were similar to those of white students and the students had similar discipline histories, DOJ officials said.

A compliance review triggered by the district's federal desegregation order in 2008 led to the investigation into discipline policies and practices, said Jocelyn Samuels, a principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division. Complaints about how the district handled discipline began to accumulate in 2010.

She said black students were disciplined harshly for truly minor infractions—an untucked shirt, a sweater that violated the dress code.

"We are all entirely supportive of protecting the safety of students," but large numbers of suspensions and expulsions for minor violations of school rules don't accomplish that, Samuels said.

Many of the policies that led to the investigation have already been discontinued, Superintendent Alvin Taylor told the Meridian Star.

"The vast majority of these allegations that caused all this stem from the years 2007 to 2010. When my administration came in in 2011, we were already making changes so by the time DOJ came in here to do their investigation, we had done 50 percent of the changes already and were moving to do others," Taylor said. "They simply came in and talked about changes that we were already making."

The investigation Samuels detailed is department's investigation is entirely separate from a Justice Department inquiry into how the local court system, city, and other agencies are contributing to the funneling of students from schools into the juvenile justice system, Samuels said. But stemming problems at the school level could help address the issues raised in that "school-to-prison pipeline" investigation, and the consent decree could be a model for how to handle similar problems elsewhere.

"Sadly the problems that we see in Meridian are problems we see in school districts across the country," Samuels said. The Justice Department recently signed an agreement with the Palm Beach County, Fla., school district over discipline. That case centered on English-language learners.

And in January, a coalition of civil rights groups issued a report decrying problems with discipline and juvenile justice referrals across Mississippi.

She commended the Meridian school district for working with the Justice Department on the new school discipline plan. According to the agreement, which has to be approved by a judge, the DOJ will monitor Meridian through the end of the 2016-17 school district to see that it is complying with the new agreement.

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