A recent Department of Justice lawsuit that called the criminalization of school disciplinary offenses as minor as dress code violations so arbitrary and severe as to “shock the conscience” publicized some of the most egregious punishment at Meridian, Mississippi’s schools. But perpetuation of what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline is not limited to that one city or county, and it’s nothing new, according to a new report by several civil rights organizations. Stories highlighted by the report reveal that school punishment in other Mississippi counties is as bad, if not worse, and exemplify the severity and scope of the problem:
In 2000, what began with a few students playfully throwing peanuts at one another on a school bus ended in five Black male high school students being arrested for felony assault, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. When one of the peanuts accidentally hit the white female bus driver, the bus driver immediately pulled over to call the police, who diverted the bus to the courthouse where the students were questioned.
The Sheriff commented to one newspaper, “[T]his time it was peanuts, but if we don’t get a handle on it, the next time it could be bodies.”
More recently, in 2009 in Southaven, DeSoto County, armed police officers responded to an argument between three students on a school bus by reportedly arresting a half dozen Black students, choking and tackling one Black female student, and threatening to shoot the other students on the bus between their eyes.
In 2010, in Jackson Public School District, until a lawsuit was filed, staff at one school regularly handcuffed students to metal railings in the school gymnasium and left them there for hours if they were caught not wearing a belt, among other minor infractions. For example, one 14-year-old boy was reportedly handcuffed to the railing when he wore a stocking cap to class, threw his papers on the ground, and refused to do his school work.
Mississippi is among 19 states that still permit paddling in school, and has the highest percentage of students beaten by educators. Severe over-punishment is imposed in a discriminatory and arbitrary manner, with three times as many black students receiving out-of-school suspensions as white students.
In Meridian, Miss., the problem of criminalizing school infractions is perpetuated by a policy of school officials calling police to discipline students. This raises serious concerns about the push to place more officers in schools in the wake of the Newtown, Ct. mass shooting, as putting more armed guards in schools has already been linked to an uptick in arrests.
A juvenile judge in Georgia testified about this phenomenon during a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:
When I took the bench in 1999, I was shocked to find that approximately one-third of the cases in my courtroom were school-related, of which most were low risk misdemeanor offenses. Upon reviewing our data, the increase in school arrests did not begin until after police were placed on our middle and high school campuses in 1996—well before the horrific shootings at Columbine High School. The year before campus police, my court received only 49 school referrals. By 2004, the referrals increased over 1,000 percent to 1,400 referrals, of which 92% were misdemeanors mostly involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.
Despite the many arrests, school safety did not improve. The number of serious weapons brought to campus increased during this period of police arrests including guns, knives, box cutter knives, and straight edge razors. Of equal concern was the decrease in the graduation rates during this same period—it reached an all-time low in 2003 of 58%. It should come to no one’s surprise that the more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased. These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency—school connectedness.