In Meridian, Mississippi, known for its particularly egregious practices that criminalize student discipline, kids have been put behind bars for wearing the wrong color socks or being late to school. The city has become the center of a recent national trend in which minority students are disproportionately subject to arrests, interrogations and time in juvenile detention for school behavior violations. But Meridian also has a history of discrimination, and has been subject to DOJ monitoring since 1967, when a court ordered the school to desegregate, and implemented a plan that remains in place. In conjunction with that monitoring, the Department uncovered that African Americans in the majority-black district received significantly harsher punishments for the same offenses and were more than five times more likely than whites to be suspended from class. On Thursday, the city school district and DOJ reached an agreement to curb some of the most egregious practices in what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
The 44-page consent decree prescribes a broad range of reforms, including banning suspension or any other “exclusionary disciplinary consequence” for a dress code violation or single incidence of tardiness, and prohibiting school officials from involving law enforcement officers except when required by law or necessary to ensure student safety.
If approved by a federal judge, this agreement would settle claims by the DOJ’s Educational Opportunities Section with the school district, but it does not affect a separate ongoing DOJ lawsuit against the city and several other state counties and departments that alleges children are punished “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”
Officials on a press call Friday hailed the agreement as “landmark” but conceded that Meridian is just one of many jurisdictions both within Mississippi and around the country that are criminalizing school discipline.
“Unfortunately, today across the country, students are being pulled off the path to success by harsh disciplinary policies that are excluding students from school for minor disciplinary infractions,” said the DOJ’s Jocelyn Samuels. “Students are being suspended, expelled or even arrested for school uniform violations, talking back to teachers or laughing in class.” Studies have found that these policies don’t make schools safer, and instead funnel kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.