Mississippi School System Agrees to Keep More Misbehaving Students in Class

By Susan Jones | May 31, 2013 | 12:18 PM EDT

The goal of the consent decree approved by a federal court on Thursday is to "prevent and address racial discrimination in student discipline." (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Compelled by the U.S. Justice Department, a Mississippi school district has agreed to keep more misbehaving students in the classroom instead of suspending them, expelling them, or letting the police deal with them.

The goal of the consent decree approved by a federal court on Thursday is to "prevent and address racial discrimination in student discipline," and to keep black students out of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Among other items, the Meridian, Miss., Public School District has agreed to "limit discipline that removes students from classrooms." That includes suspensions, expulsions and "exclusionary consequences for minor misbehavior."

Instead of kicking unruly kids out of class, the school district will expand the use of "positive behavior intervention," which sets clear expectations of students, acknowledges positive behavior, and uses misbehavior as an opportunity for re-teaching instead of punishment.

As part of the consent decree, no longer will police be called to Meridan schools when a student's misbehavior can be "safely and appropriately handled" by school officials.

“The consent decree approved by the court today (Thursday) will propel meaningful reform in Meridian schools and serve as a blueprint for school districts across the country,” said Jocelyn Samuels, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.  “We commend the Meridian Public School District for its commitment to keeping its students in safe and inclusive classrooms, and out of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

As part of the plan, school law enforcement officers will be trained in "bias-free policing," child and adolescent dvelopment, and "age-approopriate responses."

For students who are sent to alternative schools, there must now be clear entry and exit criteria -- and support for students when they move back to their regular schools.

Due process protections will be enhanced for students at school disciipline hearings, and the school system's discipline data will be monitored to "identify and respond to racial disparities."

And finally, families and communities will be engaged as "partners" in revising school policies.

The consent decree amends a longstanding federal school desegregation decree enforced by the United States, which prohibits the school district from discriminating against students based on race.

“This consent decree is a major stride toward equal justice and equal opportunity for all students in Meridian,” said Gregory K. Davis, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. “The court’s order is a powerful reminder to schools that they may not discriminate against students on the basis of race or another protected status in administering discipline.”

In an April 2012 speech, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, mentioned the case in Meridian, saying students were allegedly arrested for violations of the school dress code or for talking back in class:

"I had an opportunity to visit Meridian and listen first hand to students," Perez told a gathering of attorneys in Boston. "They told me of being escorted from school for crying while being paddled.  They told me of serving time in in-school suspension for wearing the wrong color socks.  I listened to a panel of eight students, roughly half of whom were wearing ankle bracelets.   Our investigation remains ongoing and we have made no final judgments, but the hopelessness and desperation conveyed by those students was palpable."

Perez -- recently nominated to be President Obama's Labor Secretary -- called it regrettable that "students of color are receiving different and harsher disciplinary punishments than whites for the same or similar infractions, and they are disproportionately impacted by zero-tolerance policies -– a fact that only serves to exacerbate already deeply entrenched disparities in many communities."