For at least a decade, Meridian residents and advocates from the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center have been demanding accountability from the public school system, which routinely suspends, expels and ultimately criminalizes mostly black students.
To deal with Meridian, which has a well-documented history of recalcitrance in the face of federal pressure, state and local civil rights advocates, school officials and the DOJ have entered into an uneasy relationship. Some longtime residents outside of the process are asking if Justice Department muscle will be enough to compel the town clean up its act this time around.
Ghosts of Mississippi
Meridian families have been fighting for equity in public institutions for decades. They’ve done so against a historical backdrop of racial violence and terrorism. In 1964, a mob of Ku Klux Klan members from Meridian and neighboring Neshoba County murdered the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The white supremacists singled out the young men for organizing boycotts of white-owned stores, registering black voters and setting up alternative Freedom Schools for black students.
Just 11 months later, in May 1965, Meridian parents filed a lawsuit against the district to dismantle its segregated school system. In a maneuver designed to uphold federal anti-discrimination laws, the federal government joined that suit a month later as a plaintiff. One of the products of the suit was a 1969 federal order mandating that Meridian desegregate its schools.
The DOJ’s March 2013 consent decree is attached to the 1969 desegregation order—an order Meridian hasn’t fulfilled for 44 years. Despite the local history, national observers say this binding agreement could produce change.
“Meridian is an extreme case of a general problem in American education with the disproportionate and inappropriate suspension of kids, especially black males,” says Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “But the best thing about civil rights enforcement is that sometimes out of the really bad situations you get a model that is not only appropriate for that same situation but one which can help other school districts.”
Small Town, Big Problems
Indeed, the problems in tiny Meridian have been extreme, even in its recent past. Over at least a six-year period, it was common practice for schools to have students arrested for small infractions including dress-code violations. Students ended up in the juvenile justice system for wearing rainbow-patterned socks or a shirt that had too many buttons or was the wrong shade of blue.
Using the unfulfilled 1969 desegregation order as leverage, the DOJ initiated a case review of Meridian during the 2007-2008 school year. The Justice Department found that even when it controlled for other characteristics, such as the age of students punished, the schoolhouse where the disciplinary action took place, and students’ behavior records, teachers and educators treated black girls and boys more harshly than their white counterparts. Between 2006 and 2010, every single one of the kids referred to law enforcement or expelled from a Meridian public school was black. African American children made up 86 percent of the district’s student population but 96 percent of those suspended. And Meridian public schools expelled and suspended students with specialized learning plans at a rate seven times higher than the Mississippi average.
The new consent decree addresses each of these abuses, and calls for a ground-up system to modify the adults’ behavior. Among the 113 requirements:
- Schools will have to call parents about their children’s dress-code violations and ask them to bring their sons or daughters the appropriate clothing.
- Meridian must rewrite its school discipline code and enlist police officers to arrest students for only serious and/or violent offenses.
- The system must track racial disparities and modify practices where they persist.
- Meridian must provide due process protections for students, such as requiring the district to inform them of what they’re being charged with when they face suspension or expulsion.
Of course discrimination has long been against the law, and even explicitly so for Meridian. The town’s culture is a different matter. On its official website, Meridian boasts about being the home of a Confederate arsenal during the Civil War but is entirely silent about the enslavement of African-Americans and the displacement of indigenous Choctaw Indians. This official storytelling reflects what Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, describes as de facto segregation in the town’s education system.
“De facto segregation is still very much the reality here,” says Johnson. “That’s a trend you find all across Mississippi and the South; that resistance to school desegregation continues to this day.”
The re-segregation of U.S. schools may be a national trend but in Mississippi, Johnson says, “anytime black school-aged children are 25 to 30 percent of a district, you can also find a segregated private academy where white families put their kids.”
As a result, says Johnson, the public school system primarily serves black and very poor white kids. “It’s starving the educational opportunity of the children and the state.”
Local Trauma and Bitterness
Roscoe Jones is a longtime Meridian resident and in 1965 he was one of the first black students to integrate its schools. Over the two years he spent in an integrated schoolhouse, he says he was called “nigger” so much, “I didn’t even know my own name.” In 1982 he became transportation director for the Meridian Public School District. On the job he found out that the district, while ostensibly integrated, was still running separate school buses for black and white students.
“It’s hard to describe how Meridian segregates and how [Meridian residents] do their racial overtones,” Jones tells Colorlines.com. “You don’t have the burning of churches and the Molotov cocktails here. … You [have] a system whereby they said, ‘We’ll let you integrate but we’re going to keep control.’ Integration was the worst thing to happen to black folks in Meridian. We didn’t march for integration, we marched for equality, but look what we have now.”
Rev. Charles Johnson, a pastor at Meridian Fitkins Church of the Nazarene, has lived in the town for more than 50 years and he echoes Jones’ skepticism. “Decrees are good. They’re good. But no one’s hardly ever around to enforce them,” he says. “You got people here who don’t even have a mind to change—Meridian never really dealt with its problems the first time around.”
Meridian Schools Superintendent Alvin Taylor says that since he assumed his post in mid-2011, he’s already implemented much of what’s been formalized by the DOJ’s consent decree. “It wasn’t a difficult process at all,” he says. “Once [the DOJ] came in we were already doing our changes. We just collaborated with them and came to some agreements on how to best serve our schools and at the same time protect the rights of children.”
Taylor says that compared to the school years between 2007 to 2010, Meridian has cut its expulsions and out-of-school suspensions by nearly 50 percent. The DOJ consent decree, however, details serious abuses extending through the last academic year.
To foster accountability, the town has agreed to hire educational consultants to retrain school staffs and guide the district through the reform process. Should the town fail to hold up its end of the agreement or resolve its issues out of court, the federal government has the right to sue. A suit would further expose the district to more national embarrassment and legal sanctions.
The DOJ also has a separate lawsuit pending against Meridian’s juvenile court system, including its youth court, judges, and the county.
A National Strategy
On the day the DOJ unveiled the Meridian consent decree, Jocelyn Samuels, a deputy assistant attorney general from the Civil Rights Division, reminded observers that nationwide black students—particularly boys—are three and a half times as likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts. Education experts have long held that students who are exposed to harsh school discipline and the juvenile justice system face a greater risk of dropping out eventually.
In 2011, the Departments of Education and Justice kicked off an initiative to support school districts in adopting less punitive and more effective school discipline policies. Last year the DOE released for the first time reams of national data on schools’ discipline practices, and the Justice Department has been reforming other individual districts as well.
But such are the limits of the federal government’s accountability mechanisms. The Justice Department cannot station a monitor inside every classroom or along every school hallway. And that’s what some people in Meridian fear, that the federal government’s reach may end just at the moment that the town requires the most handholding.
“Mississippi is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jones. “Meridian just got caught with its pants down.”
In the end, sustainable social change will require more than just a powerful federal monitor, says the NAACP’s Derrick Johnson. It’s not the 44-page (PDF) federal document that will protect Meridian kids from future abuses. Instead, it’ll require sustained parent engagement and an empowered, active community to stay on top of the district and make the pile of papers live. Even the most hopeful watchers of Meridian’s reform say it will take a powerful combination of federal muscle, local political will, an organized public and a willing school district to make any lasting change.
But Meridian families cannot afford to wait for some chance alignment of these factors. And the proposed federal overhaul is so overdue. “I would always say, ‘Dang, I wish there was somebody that could help me,’ because I didn’t know what I could do,” Meridian parent Gloria Green told me last fall. Green’s son Cedrico was forced on repeated and extended suspensions that stole precious school time from him. She witnessed how incarceration altered Cedrico’s relationship with school, a place he once loved. When we last talked, she remained hopeful. “I’m excited because I have a 13-year-old coming up in the Meridian public schools as well.”