It’s a big day for the small city of Meridian, Mississippi, home to one of the nation’s most notorious school-to-prison pipeline systems. This morning the Department of Justice filed a consent decree with the Meridian Public School District to address its school discipline practices which not only were ushering kids into jail for the lightest of infractions—including wearing the wrong color socks or showing up to school without a belt on—but also singling out black students for the harshest treatment.
“Today, together with the school district and private plaintiffs in the case we are filing a proposed consent decree that addresses claims of racial discrimination in student discipline in Meridian County schools,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “As part of efforts to enforce a longstanding desegregation decree we investigated complaints that the district implemented a harsh and punitive discipline policy that resulted in the disproportionate suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest of black students in Meridian public schools.”
And even when controlling for other factors, racial disparities persisted, “even when students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories,” Samuels said. It had the effect of shoving youth out of school and into youth jails, and marking kids indelibly. The decree, pending approval by the court, will address exactly this pattern of practices that the DOJ documented in a multi-year investigation of the school district and the local school.
The consent decree will, among other changes, limit the school district’s practice of suspending, expelling and arresting kids in school for various infractions, and bar school officials from calling school police to get involved in disciplinary actions which can better be handled without a police officer. And those dress code violations? Under the new decree wearing the wrong color socks won’t necessarily land a kid in jail again. Schools will be required to instead allow kids to comply with the dress code by providing extra clothes at the school or letting parents come by to drop off the right items. It’s these small changes which can have a truly meaningful impact.
Advocates are applauding today’s decree. “For Mississippi it’s really a glorious day,” said Jody Owens, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office. “The abuses in Meridian have been horrific. Unfortunately we have lost a generation. But we commend DOJ for listening to the experiences of Meridian children whose lives have been damaged and their futures put in jeopardy.”
And, that other lawsuit the Department of Justice has got against the city and state of Meridian, Mississippi and its juvenile justice system? It’s not going away and is still pending; this consent decree is between just the Meridian Public School District and the Department of Justice. It amends a longstanding federal desegregation order that the district has yet to fulfill dating back to the 1960s.