CDF: Miss. black students face tougher discipline

By Laura Tillman/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Black students in Mississippi’s public schools are more than twice as likely as white students to be disciplined and punished, according to a new report from the Children’s Defense Fund.

Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Washington-based group, said Friday in Jackson that many black students are on a school-to-prison pipeline that’s undermining 50 years of civil rights progress.

“We do not need to institute slavery under another name and that’s what mass incarceration is becoming,” said Edelman, who worked as an attorney in Mississippi during the civil rights era and was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar Association.

CDF asked all Mississippi school districts for data on school discipline for the 2010-11 school year. The state had 152 districts then, but has had 151 since last July. About two-thirds of districts provided information, while the rest didn’t respond or requested prohibitive fees, sometimes as much as $2,400.

The report examined data from 59 schools, which provided records that could be broken down by race, gender and age.

A Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman said districts are required to report disciplinary data but the state can’t release expulsion information by district so because it would compromise student privacy.

The report is the latest effort by the CDF, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, to fight “zero-tolerance” policies, which dole out harsh penalties to students including expulsion, sometimes for minor infractions.

“The point of public schools is to educate children, and you can’t educate them if they’re not in school,” Edelman said.

In October, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Meridian and Lauderdale County officials, claiming the Meridian Public School District routinely incarcerates students for breaking even minor rules.

Last month, the ACLU and NAACP released a report saying Mississippi’s policies punish students too harshly, sending them to juvenile detention for even small offenses, like violating the dress code or using foul language.

The new CDF report is an effort to evaluate rates of school discipline as they pertain to race, gender and age. CDF leaders hope they will be able to use the data to work with school districts on strategies for managing behavior so students can stay in school and out of juvenile detention.

Mississippi Black Caucus Chairman Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, said lawmakers will use the data to “intensely” address the issue of school discipline.

“A lot of children make mistakes,” Jones said Friday. “One group gets an opportunity to learn and another group is put in the penal system. It’s unfair and almost despicable.”

Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House said in a statement last month that she hopes districts will evaluate their policies to “prevent any unfair treatment of students.”

“It is important for administrators to find ways to address disciplinary issues that will keep students engaged in their education because we know that a child’s school experience influences his or her decision to drop out,” House said.

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Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report.