MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) — The Meridian Public School District has agreed to watch out for racial disparities in student discipline and the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to dismiss complaints about a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Superintendent Alvin Taylor told The Meridian Star that his administration had already made at least half the changes requested by the department and was working on the rest when talks began.
The consent decree needs approval by U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate. The school board approved unanimously it last week, Taylor said.
It won’t affect a federal lawsuit against the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County and two county youth court judges, Jocelyn Samuels of the department’s Civil Rights Division said Friday.
The school district was not a defendant in that suit, which suit alleges that authorities in Meridian and Lauderdale County had policies that locked up students for minor infractions – and that black or disabled children were most affected.
Students could be arrested and shipped 80 miles to a juvenile detention center without probable cause or legal representation, the lawsuit said.
The department worked with the district through a longstanding federal school desegregation decree which prohibits the district from discriminating against students based on race.
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 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.”
Among other things, the decree:
-Limits use of suspension, alternative placement and expulsion, and prohibits such “exclusionary” discipline for minor misbehavior;
-Prohibits school officials from using law enforcement to deal with 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;
-Requires monitoring of discipline data to identify and respond to racial disparities;
“We’re going to keep law and order,” Taylor said. “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.”