By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Meridian Public School district have come to terms on a consent decree to address allegations of past racial discrimination in using harsh school discipline policies that the DOJ said created what has been called a school to prison pipeline in Meridian.
If approved by the court, the proposed consent decree will resolve the department’s investigation into complaints that the district unlawfully and disproportionately subjects black students to suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest, often for minor infractions, according to Jocelyn Samuels, principal deputy assistant Attorney General for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.
Samuels conducted a telephone conference press briefing on the issue Friday from Washington, D.C.
The Meridian Public School District was not named in a lawsuit filed by DOJ in October, but the department worked with the district through a longstanding federal school desegregation decree which prohibits the district from discriminating against students based on race.
Those named in the lawsuit included the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County, the Mississippi Division of Youth Services and two youth court judges in Lauderdale County. The consent decree between DOJ and the school district does not change the status of the federal lawsuit, Samuels said.
In the course of the investigation, the department found that black students frequently received harsher disciplinary consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories, Samuels said. Black students were disproportionately given harsher punishment than white students, Samuels said.
Many of the policies that led to the investigation had already been discontinued, according to Dr. Alvin Taylor, superintendent of MPSD. Taylor said the core of the issue, which DOJ has acknowledged happens throughout the country, is suspending students for non-threatening acts or for what they view as minor infractions.
"The vast majority of these allegations that caused all this stem from the years 2007 to 2010. When my administration came in in 2011, we were already making changes so by the time DOJ came in here to do their investigation, we had done 50 percent of the changes already and were moving to do others," Taylor said. "They simply came in and talked about changes that we were already making."
Taylor said the Board of Trustees of the Meridian Public School District on Thursday unanimously approved the consent order.
The order ensures that student discipline is fair and non-discriminatory and that all students have an equal opportunity to learn in a safe, orderly and supportive environment. The consent order will now be sent to United States District Court Judge Henry Wingate for approval.
As part of the agreement, the Meridian Public School District will implement the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program. Implementation of this program began in the 2012 - 2013 school year, but will be full-scale for the 2013 - 2014 school year. PBIS focuses on encouraging and rewarding students who exhibit positive behavior. To help with full implementation of PBIS, and as set out in the consent order, the MPSD will hire a PBIS director. Discipline policies and procedures will be revised for the upcoming school year as well.
That doesn't mean that students will be allowed to get away with any type of threatening behavior, he said.
"What we're going to be doing, we're going to keep law and order. There will never be a time where teachers have to worry about kids being in school that have committed violent acts or threatening people's safety, but we have to do a better job of not putting kids out of school for minor infractions — putting kids out of school for dress code violations or because they rolled their eyes or things like that — those are things that everybody in education has to improve on," Taylor said.
"Our number one goal is and will always remain — to maintain safe and orderly schools," Taylor said. "Our teachers will be supported, parents will know that their children are safe in school and kids will know they are safe."
Samuels praised the action of the school board.
“The American dream is rooted in education. In Meridian, that dream has long been delayed by discipline practices that deny students access to education,” Samuels said. “We commend the Meridian Public School District for taking this huge step toward ensuring that its schools are safe and welcoming to all students and that education is a road to success instead of a pipeline to prison.”
The consent decree:
Limits exclusionary discipline such as suspension, alternative placement and expulsion, and prohibits exclusionary discipline for minor misbehavior;
Prohibits school officials from involving law enforcement officers to respond to behavior that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures;
Requires training for school law enforcement officers on bias-free policing, child and adolescent development and age appropriate responses, practices proven to improve school climate, mentoring and working with school administrators;
Revises policies at the district’s alternative school to create clear entry and exit criteria and provide appropriate supports to speed students’ transitions back to their home schools;
Requires enhanced due process protections in student discipline hearings;
Expands use of a behavior and discipline management system known as positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) at all schools;
Requires teachers and administrators to use developmentally appropriate tiered prevention and intervention strategies before removing students from instruction;
Requires monitoring of discipline data to identify and respond to racial disparities;
Requires training on all revised policies and procedures; and
Implements measures to engage families and communities as partners in revising policies and as participants in regular school and community informational forums.