The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is calling for statewide reforms in Mississippi to end school discipline policies that, the group contends, fuel a "pipeline to prison."

In a report, "Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Preventing Pushouts in Mississippi Schools," the CDF contends that the zero-tolerance discipline policies that are in place in many of Mississippi's schools are too harsh and serve only to push children out of school and, in many cases, into a life of crime.

"Zero-tolerance discipline policies are not helping the children who need intervention the most," the report says. "Instead, they are excluding tens of thousands of students from school every year — including many students who most need to be in class — and making those children even more likely to end up trapped in the destructive, expensive prison pipeline."

The CDF report comes just two weeks after a similar report, "Handcuffs on Success," was released by a coalition of organizations that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the MIssissippi NAACP.

"Handcuffs on Success" also called for a statewide effort to make school discipline more fair and uniform in Mississippi.

"There are no statewide prescribed standards for school discipline that ensure that the codes of student conduct in Mississippi's school districts meet basic standards of fairness and common sense," the report states. "This lack of standards allows schools to use harsh and extreme punishments for minor infractions. Such harsh and extreme punishment works at cross-purposes with the state's school improvement efforts and educators' efforts to promote teaching and learning in healthy and productive ways."

The "Handcuffs" report noted that students were being suspended "for the most trivial misbehaviors," such as dress code violations or profane language.

In October 2012, the U.S. Justice Department brought public attention to school discipline issues in Mississippi when it sued city of Meridian, Miss., Lauderdale County, Miss., judges in the Lauderdale County Youth Court, and the state of Mississippi. The Justice Department contended that those government entitities were violating students' constitutional rights by punishing them excessively for minor offenses.

The CDF, in its report, sought to identify which Mississippi school districts needed reforms most urgently. It filed Freedom of Information Act requests with all school districts in Mississippi asking for 10 years of detailed data on discipline policies and practices: 32 did not provide information; 84 provided some data, but "the lack of uniform comparable data across school districts makes it extremely challenging to put in place statewide strategies to address the harms children face," the report asserts.

The data provided that was provided showed that:

  • Black students were more than twice as likely as White students to have a disciplinary incident and a disposition.
  • At least 52 percent of the incidents were for infractions that did not break the law, such as tardiness and insubordination or defiant behavior; 22 percent were for infractions that were unlawful, such as disorderly conduct and fighting; the remainder were unspecified.

"We must replace zero tolerance discipline polices with meaningful alternatives that keep students engaged and learning in safe schools and out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems," the report says. "... Federal direction and support also can help states and school districts modify school discipline codes to end out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for nonviolent offenses and end suspensions for minor behavioral infractions."

The report's recommendations include:

  • Requiring all Mississippi school districts to submit data at least annually, at the end of each school year, to the State Department of Education on the types of incidents and dispositions for these incidents, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, disability status and school, using uniform incident and disposition definitions. These data must also be made public.
  • Requiring all Mississippi school districts to establish discipline protocols and practices to ensure that disciplinary policies are enforced fairly and uniformly. These school and district level discipline codes should end out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent offenses.
  • Establishing meaningful alternatives to suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent offenses.
  • Replacing alternative school models that are punitive with models that focus on supporting appropriate student behaviors.
  • Helping teachers, parents, students and faith and other community leaders understand the disciplinary profile of a school and school district, and helping them craft new policies to better help and support students.
  • Taking steps to stop pushing students out of school and to be more responsive to student needs.

"Now is the time to reverse course on zero-tolerance school discipline policies and to chart a new course to close achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates and career-readiness for all of Mississippi's children," the report concludes. "New protections and investments are desperately needed so we can replace the Cradle to Prison Pipeline with a pipeline to college, productive work, and a successful transition to adulthood"

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