Based on national data reported by 72,000 schools that educate a total of 85 percent of all students, a March 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found that black students made up 18 percent of students sampled, 35 percent of those temporarily suspended, 39 percent of those permanently expelled and 46 percent of those suspended more than once. The data profiled kindergarten through high school students.
Most suspensions or expulsions involve middle and high school youths, according to a Council of State Governments Justice Center 2012 report.
Still, spotlighting what many say is the complex issue of how to handle undisciplined kids -- including those from homes that are dysfunctional or impoverished or both -- was the 2009 case of a 5-year-old Florida girl handcuffed by police after ripping paper, climbing atop a table and repeatedly punching an educator in class. In a 2012 case, police arrested a 6-year-old Georgia girl, charging her with simple assault and damage to property after she threw a temper tantrum. Once in the principal's office, she began to fight police, they said.
"These sorts of stories are so frequent now, it's almost like an archetype," said Don Cipriani, director of the New York City-based Public Interest Project's Just and Fair Schools Fund, adding that certain stereotypes are at play in some of the cases.
"What is the image projected in the mass media, in pop culture? It's that [black kids] are demons, little Satans. 'Lock them up forever,' " Cipriani said. "That mentality has spread into our schools."
Attorney Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, said in a statement that the concerns triggering the Meridian consent decree -- and an ongoing federal lawsuit against local courts and law-enforcement officials who allegedly disproportionately detained black students and remanded them to juvenile-detention centers -- were "reminiscent of these historic battles over access to public education." The NAACP applauds the Justice Department's order.
What's more, say school-reform advocates such as the Advancement Project's Dianis and Public Interest Project's Cipriani, suspended and expelled students are more likely to fail, drop out, wind up behind bars and be relegated to lifelong poverty.