JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Civil rights advocates say harsh disciplinary practices at many Mississippi schools lead to children being expelled and even incarcerated for minor infractions, policies that disproportionally affect minorities.
A joint report by groups including the ACLU and NAACP says the problems are more widespread than just the city of Meridian, where the U.S. Justice Department has filed a suit claiming officials are running a "school-to-prison pipeline" for minor infractions.
The groups say the Meridian lawsuit is just one example of a problem "that has plagued Mississippi schools statewide for years." The report was a joint project of the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse and the Advancement Project.
"The bottom line is that there are no successful schools in America that have high expulsion, suspension and arrest rates," Scott Roberts, a coordinator for Advancement Project, said at a news conference in Jackson.
The report comes less than three months after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jackson alleging that students in the southeastern city of Meridian have been sent to juvenile detention for infractions such as flatulence or dress code violations, and that mostly black and disabled children are affected.
The defendants deny the allegations and the city said in court records that the police department amended its arrest policies before the suit was filed. Youth court judges in Lauderdale County also denied the allegations in court documents.
The new report says many schools in Mississippi use zero-tolerance policies and students end up incarcerated or kicked out of school "often for the most trivial misbehaviors."
"Whether it is a dress code violation, profane language, or a schoolyard scuffle, young people are being herded into juvenile detention centers and into the revolving door of the criminal justice system," the report says.
The report also cites a study of 115 school districts in Mississippi that found black students were three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than whites and the number was higher in certain districts.
The Mississippi Department of Education said in a statement Thursday that school districts "establish their own discipline policies" but the department urged them "to set policies that ensure all children are treated fairly."
The Mississippi Board of Education added new guidelines last year to its alternative education policy and cautioned districts against sending students to an alternative school for minor infractions.
"It is important for administrators to find ways to address disciplinary issues that will keep students engaged in their education because we know that a child's school experience influences his or her decision to drop out," interim state Superintendent Lynn House said in the statement.