By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: January 16, 2013
Less than three months after the Justice Department sued Meridian, Miss., after finding that school students there were routinely arrested without probable cause, a report by a group of civil rights organizations says that “overly harsh school disciplinary policies” are common throughout the state.
The report, which is to be released Thursday, found that in one Mississippi school district, 33 of every 1,000 children were arrested or referred to juvenile detention centers; that in another, such referrals included second and third graders; and that in yet another, only 4 percent of the law enforcement referrals were for felony-level behavior, the most often cited offense being “disorderly conduct.”
“The school-to-prison pipeline is nothing new in Mississippi, and it is certainly not unique to Meridian,” the report says. “In fact, it is a problem that has plagued Mississippi schools statewide for years.”
In addition to statistics, the report described episodes in which a child was taken home by the police for wearing shoes that violated the dress code, and a school where misbehaving students were handcuffed for infractions as minor as not wearing a belt.
The report also found that, over all, Mississippi imposed out-of-school suspensions at a rate more than one and a half times the national average. In several districts, the rate was more than 9 times the national average, and in one, more than 17 times.
The report comes as lawmakers in many states, including Mississippi, are considering plans to place armed officers or guards in every school, a measure that has gained traction since the shootings in Newtown, Conn. While this report does not focus on that issue specifically, its authors suggest that the presence of more police officers could make a bad problem worse.
“Police who were initially put in schools to handle matters of safety have become involved in ordinary day-to-day disciplinary infractions,” said Erika Maye, a spokeswoman for the Advancement Project, a Washington-based group that helped prepare the report. The Mississippi chapters of the A.C.L.U. and the N.A.A.C.P., and a group called the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, were also involved.
In August, the Justice Department released a letter of findings charging that the police in Meridian routinely arrested children at schools without probable cause, merely on the referral of school personnel. The letter found that students had been incarcerated for “dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect.”
In October, the Justice Department sued the city, the county and the state, arguing that the actions violate children’s constitutional rights.
Echoing the Justice Department’s findings, the report to be released Thursday found that black students were disproportionately more likely to receive the punishments, in both black- and white-majority districts. The authors of the report looked at 115 school districts in the state and found that while black students made up half the student population of those districts, they were more than three times as likely as whites to receive out-of-school suspensions.
On Thursday morning, the Youth and Family Affairs Committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives will hold a hearing on the information in the report, said Representative John W. Hines Sr., the committee chairman. The authors of the report will testify, along with several school officials and parents of children who were the recipients of some of the disciplinary measures. “It’s my preferred way to resolve some of the things without going through the courts and having to have changes mandated,” Mr. Hines said.