WASHINGTON — Federal mediators and public school administrators in Meridian, Miss., have reached a landmark agreement to launch a rewards-based disciplinary plan, aimed at keeping in the classroom more black students who routinely received harsher disciplinary action when accused of relatively minor infractions.
The March 22 consent decree outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice awaits a federal court's final approval. Seen as a potential precursor to how that federal agency may resolve its present investigation of similar complaints in Seattle -- and trailing a similar 2012 agreement between the Justice Department and Oakland Unified School District in California -- the Meridian order comes as school-reform advocates across the country have spent roughly a decade trying to dismantle what they label as a school-to-prison pipeline. Some view ouster from school as a starting point in that journey.
"There are a combination of factors that lead to this overuse of suspensions and the criminalization of young people," civil rights lawyer Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project, said. "One, we live in a high-stakes testing environment where schools are so focused on tests scores that they're not [sufficiently] focused on kids. It gives a perverse incentive to push out kids who are having academic problems.
"It fosters an environment where educators have less tolerance. We definitely have implicit bias that works against children, where young people are being targeted differently, especially black boys."
Still pending is a federal lawsuit filed in October 2012 against the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court and the state of Mississippi. In it, the Justice Department alleges that those entities systematically violated the due process rights of students whom the school district referred to law enforcement.
The Justice Department's investigation noted that black students in Meridian, where 61 percent of the city's roughly 41,000 residents are black, "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."