Several school systems in Mississippi where black students face disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions are already starting to address the problems cited in a report released on Thursday, but more changes are needed, civil rights advocates say.

Leaders with the NAACP, the ACLU, the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, and the Advancement Project, met Thursday with state lawmakers to present a report entitled “Handcuffs on Success”  examining what they call an “extreme discipline crisis in Mississippi.”

In a national media conference call that included BlackAmericaweb.com, Derrick Johnson, Mississippi state president of the NAACP said:  “Some changes are being made in the local school systems, but more changes will be needed through the legislature.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, the superintendent has appointed an administrator to take a serious look at the policies and the impact of the high number of school suspensions, Johnson said.

Leeson Taylor II, who began serving as superintendent of Greenville schools in May 2012, said the report is extensive and offers a well-detailed summary of disciplinary incidents and actions taken in Mississippi public schools and his administration is working to correct some of its problems.

“Since our transition, we have implemented innovative techniques that deal with negating the behavior while not removing the child,” Taylor said in a prepared statement. “We have seen a dramatic decline in our number of incidents, referrals, suspensions and arrests. We’re also revising and looking at ways to enhance our alternative school. We want to maintain and keep children in school, not out of school.”

The report showed that in Mississippi, a Southern state plagued in years past by racism, black students were suspended from school at a rate nine times the national average.  It also showed that for every one white child suspended from a Mississippi public school, three blacks were suspended.

The trend contributes to the state’s high dropout rate, which is the sixth highest in the country , civil rights leaders said during the conference call.

Civil rights leaders are calling on Mississippi lawmakers and education leaders to:

  • Require school districts to develop policies that use a graduated approach to discipline, based on “best practices,” that still allow districts to retain significant control over shaping local disciplinary strategies.
  • Improve statewide transparency and accountability requiring school districts to submit quarterly reports of their discipline data to the Mississippi Department of Education, at least for the next two years, and require school systems to develop action plans if they are not in compliance with best practices
  • Create a grant program to support school districts in the development of positive school climates.
  • Provide funds and incentives to encourage stakeholders and local agencies to work together with schools to reduce the number of students entering the juvenile and criminal justice system.
  • Provide funds for the Mississippi Department of Education to train for educators, school resource officers and other staff on their roles and responsibilities in student discipline.

The release of the report comes just months after the United States Department of Justice in October filed suit against the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, two youth court judges, the State of Mississippi and two state agencies for operating a school-to-prison pipeline. The complaint alleges that these groups are  “engag[ing] in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights.”

“Decades of experience tell us that the overuse and misuse of harsh disciplinary consequences like out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement inhibit student achievement,” the report states. “They result in massive amounts of lost learning time, and frequently trigger cycles of disengagement from school and an escalation of rule breaking. Simply put, there are no successful schools that suspend, expel, and refer large numbers of students to law enforcement.

Polly Windham said she and her family in Jones County,  Mississippi,  are determined for her daughter, Keyara, to avoid becoming a negative statistic.

During the fall semester, Keyera got into a fight defending herself from a teaser. An A/B student who also plays high school basketball, Keyera was suspended from school for three days. She also was forced to miss much of the fall basketball season, her mother said.

“She is doing fine now, but this was a difficult time,” Windham told BlackAmericaweb.com. “In Mississippi, when you are suspended from school, you get zeroes on your class work and you cannot make it up,” Windham said, adding that the problems caused some of her daughter’s overall grades to drop.

Nancy Kohsin-Kintigh of the Mississippi ACLU said her office continues to receive calls from the parents and guardians of students who say they faced discrimination in school discipline.

The report released on Thursday and the recommendations from civil rights leaders calling for transparency and accurate reporting of incidents should help in identifying problems and developing solutions, Kohsin-Kintigh said.

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