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The Shocking Details of a Mississippi School-to-Prison Pipeline

Wearing the wrong color socks, talking back and being late landed young Cedrico Green in jail. The Justice Department says there are many more students like him.

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This practice has also appeared to target black students. Meridian, a city of 40,000 people, is 61 percent African-American. But over a five-year period, Owens said, “There was never once a white kid that was expelled or suspended for the same offense that kids of color were suspended for.”

Among the infractions that landed Green, who is black, in juvenile detention were talking back to a teacher, wearing long socks and coming to school without wearing a belt. He was behind bars for stretches of time as long as two weeks, and the real rub, his mother Gloria said, is that weekends didn’t count as days served. A 10-day suspension stretched to 14 actual days; time for Meridian juvenile justice officials apparently stopped on weekends. All that back and forth out of school and in juvenile took a real toll on Green’s education, and he was held back from the eighth grade.

“It was mind-boggling,” Gloria Green said. “My son loved school and to be kicked out as much as he was, one year he just couldn’t catch up.”

“We did everything we know to do. I went over to the school and got make-up work, and he still failed two subjects and at that point I didn’t know which way what my child was going to go.”

“We talk about the school to prison pipeline and it’s often an abstract thing,” said Shakti Belway, an attorney who worked closely with families on the Meridian case for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But here it is literally happening over ridiculous, minor charges.” Indeed, children as young as elementary school students have been taken directly from school and forced to serve school suspensions inside a jail cell. In its complaint, the DOJ charged the city’s police department with operating a de facto “taxi service” shuttling students away from school and into youth jails.

Studying While Black

But Meridian doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of injustice. Every which way a person can look—from elementary to high school, at a national level and on down to the most local—black students are far more likely to be punished and to be punished more harshly than all other students.

A 2010 study by Russell Skiba, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, looked at four decades of data from 9,000 of the nation’s 16,000 middle schools. It found that black boys were three times as likely to be suspended as white boys and that black girls were four times as likely to be suspended as white girls. It is a serious, endemic issue.

The federal government’s case raises troubling questions about the racial disproportionality that school discipline policies produce broadly. Zero tolerance policies, which crack down on school-based infractions with automatic, harsh punishments, are the mandatory-mimimums of the school discipline world. But whatever their merits and drawbacks, said Skiba, they shouldn’t generate racially disparate outcomes. “I think what this suit says is: Whatever you do in a school district, why would it be that there would be racial and ethnic disparities? If we’re going to choose suspensions and expulsions and police presence, why are students of color overrepresented in that?”

Research shows that if the intent behind zero-tolerance policies is to discourage misbehavior and foster good learning environments, they don’t do the job. A sweeping 2006 study ( PDF) conducted by the American Psychological Association found that zero-tolerance policies don’t actually make schools safer, and in fact can work to push students away from school. If, however, the intent is to push students of color out of school, away from their educational futures and into the criminal justice system, there is also a body of evidence that suggests that zero-tolerance policies are rather effective instruments.