A newly-released report by a group of civil rights organizations has revealed that severe, often racialized school disciplinary policies are common throughout Mississippi.
The report, "Handcuffs on Success," was released last week by the Advancement Project. It details the widespread practice of suspending, expelling and arresting Mississippi students for the most petty offenses, creating a school-to-prison pipeline that helps perpetuate the epidemic of racialized mass incarceration that has destroyed entire communities of color. These 'zero-tolerance' policies have also led to Mississippi having the nation's sixth-lowest high school graduation rate.
Among the cases highlighted in the report:
- Five black teens playfully throwing peanuts at each other on a school bus were arrested for felony assault, a crime which carries a potential prison sentence of five years. "This time it was peanuts, but if we don't get a handle on it, the next time it could be bodies," the local sheriff told a reporter.
- A 5-year-old Holmes County boy was taken into police custody for wearing the wrong color shoes to school. His school's dress code required solid black shoes; the child's mother attempted to cover the red and white brand logo with a black marker but the original colors showed through and the kindergartner was detained in order to "teach him a lesson."
- Staff at one Jackson school repeatedly handcuffed students to a rail in the gym for hours as punishment for minor infractions such as not wearing a belt.
In several school districts, the suspension rate was more than 9 times the US average. In one district, it was more than 17 times the national average.
"These stories begin to provide a glimpse into the devastating reality of the students and families living in Mississippi's school-to-prison pipeline," the report states. "Every year across the state, zero tolerance and overly harsh school disciplinary policies and practices push tens of thousands of students out of school, criminalizing and incarcerating students for trivial misbehaviors and normal age-appropriate misconduct. And Mississippi's extreme school discipline crisis has broad-reaching effects: the harm it causes extends even beyond Mississippi's children and families, reaching out into its communities, to its teachers and law enforcement officials, and to the State at large."
Last year, the US Justice Department sued Lauderdale County, Mississippi, accusing officials of running a school-to-prison pipeline that locks up students, overwhelmingly black children, for minor school disciplinary infractions such as defiance, flatulence, profanity and dress code violations.
Like the Justice Department, the Advancement Project report found that black students are disproportionately targeted for severe punishment. The report studied 115 Mississippi school districts and found that blacks, who comprise half the student population in those districts, received out-of-school suspensions 3.5 times more than whites.
The report's release comes as conservative lawmakers across the nation are pushing plans to station armed guards in schools. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 27 people, including 20 young children, the National Rifle Association called for armed guards in every school in America. The Advancement Project report's authors seem to believe that this could exacerbate Mississippi's disciplinary crisis.
"Police who were initially put in schools to handle matters of safety have become involved in ordinary day-to-day disciplinary infractions," Advancement Project spokeswoman Erika Maye told the New York Times.
One part of President Barack Obama's plan to tackle gun violence calls for federal funding of school counselors and school resource officers, "specially-trained police officers who work in schools" to "help prevent school crime and student-on-student violence."
But critics counter that the focus on policing misses the bigger picture.
"We should be investing billions in schools and not school police," Manuel Criollo, a Los Angeles activist who works to fight excessive school discipline, told the Huffington Post.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse also contributed to the Advancement Project report.