The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) joined the U.S. Department of Justice and the Meridian Public School District in Meridian, Mississippi in filing a landmark consent decree that addresses harsh and unlawful school discipline policies that disproportionately targeted African-American students. Known as Barnhardt v. Meridian Municipal Separate School District, the case was originally filed by LDF and its Mississippi cooperating attorneys on behalf of the private plaintiffs in 1965. The United States, represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, joined the case as a Plaintiff-Intervenor two years later and has played a major role in recent years. The agreement comes amidst heightened concerns about punitive school disciplinary practices across the county and an intense public debate about the best way to keep schools safe.
“This agreement will serve as an example for school districts nationwide about the dangers of policies that push students out of classrooms and criminalize youthful behavior,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF.
“Too many school districts across the country have become accustomed to using exclusionary discipline methods and allowing law enforcement officers to function as the disciplinary arm of schools. This agreement shows there is another way, a better way,” added Damon Hewitt, Director of LDF’s Education Practice Group.
The agreement stems a multi-year investigation of school district operations led by the U.S. Department of Justice, including interviews and discussions with students, parents and other school community members and stakeholders. The investigation found that black students were frequently punished more harshly for engaging in the same or similar behavior as white students, including receiving longer suspensions and being expelled and arrested. In 2012, the Justice Department also filed a separate lawsuit against law enforcement and juvenile justice officials in Meridian for fostering a School-to-Prison Pipeline by arresting and incarcerating children for minor infractions, including violating a school dress code or being tardy for class.
Once approved by the court, the proposed consent decree will mark a major step forward in the effort to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline, end punitive disciplinary practices, and curb school pushout. The agreement prohibits law enforcement involvement in disciplinary matters that should be handled by appropriate school officials, and requires implementation of proven alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices. In addition, the agreement creates avenues for meaningful community participation through the creation of a Discipline Advisory Committee and also requires the school district to appoint specific staff members at each school and in the district’s central office to ensure compliance. The implementation and monitoring provisions of the agreement also require the district to revise its discipline code, provide professional development for faculty and staff, and engage in rigorous data collection, review and assessment, which will be reflected in semi-annual reports.
The Meridian school board unanimously approved the consent decree and the district will begin implementation of the agreement during the current school semester.
The consent decree marks another victory in the movement to replace punitive school discipline practices with positive alternatives that do not rely on excluding students and comes on the heels of LDF’s recent federal civil rights complaint against the Bryan Independent School District in Bryan, Texas to address the disproportionate issuance of criminal misdemeanor tickets to students who for minor misbehavior such as cursing and classroom disruptions.
The Hon. Fred Banks, a former Justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court and a long time LDF cooperating attorney, serves as local counsel.