JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Civil rights advocates say harsh disciplinary practices at many Mississippi schools lead to children being expelled and even incarcerated for minor infractions, policies that disproportionally affect minorities.
A joint report by groups including the ACLU and NAACP says the problems are more widespread than just the city of Meridian, where the U.S. Justice Department has filed a suit claiming officials are running a "school-to-prison pipeline" for minor infractions.
The groups say the Meridian lawsuit is just one example of a problem "that has plagued Mississippi schools statewide for years." The report was a joint project of the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse and the Advancement Project.
"The bottom line is that there are no successful schools in America that have high expulsion, suspension and arrest rates," Scott Roberts, a coordinator for Advancement Project, said at a news conference in Jackson.
The report comes less than three months after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jackson alleging that students in the southeastern city of Meridian have been sent to juvenile detention for infractions such as flatulence or dress code violations, and that mostly black and disabled children are affected.
The defendants deny the allegations and the city said in court records that the police department amended its arrest policies before the suit was filed. Youth court judges in Lauderdale County also denied the allegations in court documents.
The new report says many schools in Mississippi use zero-tolerance policies and students end up incarcerated or kicked out of school "often for the most trivial misbehaviors."
"Whether it is a dress code violation, profane language, or a schoolyard scuffle, young people are being herded into juvenile detention centers and into the revolving door of the criminal justice system," the report says.
The report also cites a study of 115 school districts in Mississippi that found black students were three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than whites and the number was higher in certain districts.
The Mississippi Department of Education said in a statement Thursday that school districts "establish their own discipline policies" but the department urged them "to set policies that ensure all children are treated fairly."
The Mississippi Board of Education added new guidelines last year to its alternative education policy and cautioned districts against sending students to an alternative school for minor infractions.
"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," interim state Superintendent Lynn House said in the statement.
Justice Department officials have said there are problems with disciplinary policies at some schools throughout the country. But at a news conference about the Meridian lawsuit in October, Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general, said the Meridian lawsuit was the first time the civil rights division sued based on those allegations.
Cedrico Green, now 18, told The Associated Press he was in the 8th grade the first time he was sent to juvenile detention and put on probation for fighting at a bus stop in Meridian. After that, he said he was locked up numerous times for violations ranging from fights to dress code violations.
"It got to where I didn't feel comfortable at school," Green said.
His mother, Gloria Green, said the problems eased after her son got off probation and was diagnosed with attention-deficit and emotional disorders.
She said the school did not always notify her when Cedrico was taken to juvenile detention, which she estimated to be 10 to 15 times. "I almost lost hope."
Sometimes, the civil rights groups say, very young children face frightening punishment, like a 5-year-old boy in Holmes County who was escorted home in the back of a patrol car for violating the school's dress code. The report says the school required black shoes and his mother had tried to use a black marker to cover red and white symbols.
"When she followed up with her son's principal, he justified his actions by telling her that her son needed to be 'taught a lesson,'" the report says.
The defendants have denied the allegations in court records. The city of Meridian said in a court filing that it asked for examples of specific violations, but only received "bare bones" conclusions with no examples.
This city also said that it told the Justice Department weeks before the lawsuit was filed that the police department amended its policy so that officers would only respond to calls from the school for felonies, physical violence, weapons, illegal drugs or a judge's order. Officers are no longer supposed to transport a juvenile from school grounds unless the officer witnessed the offense.
Lauderdale County youth court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young also denied the allegations, saying they never revoke a student's probation or parole for tardiness or absences alone and that they follow Mississippi law.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and DHS's Division of Youth Services.
The Meridian Public School District is not named as a defendant, but the lawsuit says incarceration is used as a "medium for school discipline."