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Feds, Miss. school reach deal over punishment

Friday - 3/22/2013, 10:00pm  ET

HOLBROOK MOHR
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- The U.S. Justice Department said Friday that it has reached a deal with a Mississippi school district to end discriminatory disciplinary practices in which black students face harsher punishment than whites for similar misbehavior.

The agreement comes after a lengthy federal investigation that found that black public school students in Meridian are five times more likely than whites to be suspended from classes and often got longer suspensions for comparable misbehavior.

Jocelyn Samuels, a deputy assistant attorney general, said during a news conference Friday that black students in the Meridian Public School District routinely receive more severe punishments than whites in most categories of misbehavior other than weapons and drugs violations. She commended the district for its cooperation with the Justice Department.

About 86 percent of Meridian's 6,000 public school students are black. The district's superintendent, Alvin Taylor, is black and there is a mixture of white and black principals, Samuels said.

Taylor did not immediately respond to a message Friday.

Samuels stressed that disciplinary problems and disparities are not unique to the city of Meridian or Mississippi and she hopes the agreement can be a guide to other school districts. Similar problems are most likely to happen at schools that have implemented harsh disciplinary policies, she said.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said in March 2012 that a nationwide survey of 72,000 schools found that black students were more likely to be suspended or expelled than others.

Black students made up 18 percent of those surveyed. They made up 35 percent of the students who were suspended once and 39 percent of those who were expelled.

"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," she said. "Students are being suspended, expelled or even arrested for school uniform violations, talking back to teachers or laughing in class."

The agreement between the Justice Department and the Meridian district, known as a consent decree, calls for the district to fully comply with several measures to end discriminatory punishment by the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

The agreement must be approved by a federal judge in Mississippi. Among the provisions in the 44-page agreement, the school would have to limit the use of disciplinary action that removes students from classrooms and ensure that consequences are fair and consistent for all students.

Judith Brown Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, commended the creation of the consent decree.

"We believe it will help break down the school to prison pipeline in Mississippi and will ensure that all children are placed on a path to college and careers, not prison," she said in a statement late Friday on behalf of her group as well as the Mississippi ACLU and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP.

Dianis noted that the issues noted in the report were not unique to Meridian.

"We hope that school districts across the state of Mississippi and the country will voluntarily adopt some of the critical positive reforms in the decree," she said.

The agreement would amend a consent decree enforced by the U.S. as part of 1965 desegregation lawsuit against the district.

Samuels said there were about 200 similar longstanding lawsuits involving districts around the country and the Justice Department reviews their disciplinary policies and practices.

The agreement is separate from a Justice Department lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges and the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

That lawsuit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson, alleges that there was "school-to-prison pipeline" in Meridian that locks up students for minor infractions like flatulence or wearing the wrong color socks.

The lawsuit claims Meridian police routinely arrested students without determining whether there was probable cause when a school wanted to press charges, and the students were routinely jailed.

Once arrested, the students end up on probation, sometimes without proper legal representation, according to the lawsuit. If the students are on probation, future school problems could be considered a violation that requires them to serve the suspension incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.

That means students can be incarcerated for "dress code infractions such as wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or for having shirts untucked; tardies; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission."

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