In Mississippi, if kindergarteners violates the dress code or act out in class, they may end up in the back of a police car.
A story about one five-year-old particularly stands out. The little boy was required to wear black shoes to school. Because he didn’t have black shoes, his mom used a marker to cover up his white and red sneakers. A bit of red and white were still noticeable, so the child was taken home by the cops.
The child was escorted out of school so he and his mother would be taught a lesson.
Ridiculous? Perhaps. But incidents such as this are happening across Mississippi. A new report, “Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools,” exposes just how bad it’s become.
Released on January 17, the report is a joint project between state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse and the Advancement Project.
The report examined more than 100 school districts and claimed that black students are affected by harsh disciplinary actions at a much greater rate than their white peers. It notes that “for every one white student who is given an out-of-school suspension, three black students are suspended, even though black students comprise just half of the student population.”
Carlos McCray, an associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Education in the Education Leadership Administration Program, says, “Research has shown that students who are subjected to multiple suspensions and expulsions are more likely to drop out of school. And we all know where this leads.”
This isn’t something new in Mississippi. Last October, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against officials in Meridian, Miss., for operating a school-to-prison pipeline.
“The needless criminalization of Mississippi’s most valuable asset—its children—must be dealt with immediately by school leaders and the communities they serve,” said Nancy Kintigh, the ACLU of Mississippi’s program director, in a statement.
“Zero-tolerance policies were originally designed to protect students from individuals who pose a threat on school grounds. Instead, they are being used to send children home for trivial things that should be solved in the principal’s office.”
Mississippi has long struggled with its education system.
It ranks sixth lowest among the 50 states in graduation rates. On a recent Science and Engineering Readiness Index, the state ranked 50th for high school students on their performance in physics and calculus. It came in last on the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey in 2012.
More out-of-school suspensions result in a school’s lower academic success, Thursday’s report noted. Some Mississippi schools have out-of-school suspension rates that are more than nine times higher than the national average.
Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of Advancement Project and longtime advocate for an end to extreme school discipline policies, said Thursday in a press release that “Implementing a graduated approach to discipline, and using non-punitive measures focused on preventing misbehavior by providing supportive interventions, have been proven to reduce suspensions and expulsions while creating safe, effective learning environments for our youth.”
The report cited several examples of unfair disciplinary measures, including the story of the child with the "black" shoes. Other incidents include:
• Students on a school bus were throwing peanuts at one another. Because one of the peanuts hit the female bus driver, five black male high school students were arrested on felony assault charges.
• A student was sent to a juvenile detention center for wearing the wrong color socks. It was considered to be a probation violation from a previous fight.
Kelly Welch, an associate professor in sociology and criminal justice at Villanova University, said that zero-tolerance policies are often harsher in schools with large minority student populations.
“Since we know that the effects of exclusionary punishments, such as suspension and expulsion, are so detrimental for student learning as well as future involvement in criminal justice, it is imperative that these policies be examined to ensure that they are only used when absolutely necessary and that they are not racially discriminatory,” Welch said.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com