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Tupelo, Miss., District to Rework School Discipline Under Civil Rights Agreement

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The Tupelo, Miss., school district will rework its discipline policies following a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, the federal agency announced Thursday.

The agreement follows a review of 2010-11 and 2011-12 discipline data by the office for civil rights, or OCR, which found that "black students had been disproportionately subjected to discipline at every stage in the district's discipline process." Because of the way policies were implemented, black students often received harsher discipline than white students for similar offenses, the OCR said.

In the data it examined, the OCR found that "black students made up nearly half of the student enrollment at the three schools with the highest numbers of disciplinary sanctions. Yet, black students received 81 percent and 78 percent of the disciplinary referrals in those two years, respectively, and 77 percent of the in-school suspensions in both school years.

"Administrators at all levels had broad discretion to identify misconduct as a violation of the district's discipline policies and punish students with exclusionary discipline, including out-of-school suspensions, referrals to the district alternative school and expulsion. Black students received 80 percent or more of these exclusionary discipline sanctions and assignments to the local juvenile detention center." 

Part of the problem, the OCR said, was that students in the 8,000-student district could receive up to a 10-day suspension for "highly subjective offenses" such as "improper behavior at school" and "other misbehavior." As I wrote this week, districts around the country are limiting or eliminating the ability to suspend students for such broad infractions because they've found subjective interpretations contribute to discipline disparities. Researchers say differing cultural perspectives or implicit bias can lead some teachers to discipline students from one race for those offenses while ignoring similar behaviors from their peers.

The Tupelo district's policies also require police reports and and mandatory referrals to the alternative school for first-time offenses of fighting, drinking or possessing alcohol, and possessing or being under the influence of drugs, the OCR said.

Under the agreement, Tupelo will:

  • Seek to discipline students without removing them from school;
  • Work with experts on strategies to prevent discrimination;
  • Review its discipline policies and practices;
  • Train staff and administrators in new policies and explain them to students and parents;
  • Create committees of students, staff, and parents to discuss discipline issues;
  • Review its use of law enforcement officials in schools;
  • Train law enforcement officials in discipline procedures and in the district's obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; and
  • Begin collecting and evaluating data to assess whether policies are being applied in a non-discriminatory manner.
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