CHICAGO
01/17/2013 05:20 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2013

School Discipline Report Highlights Tension Between Safety, Civil Rights

In Holmes County, Miss., a sheriff's car once picked up a 5-year-old. The crime? Wearing shoes with red-and-white symbols, an apparent school dress code violation.

In DeSoto County, Miss., cops reportedly arrested and threatened six students for arguing on a school bus.

The examples of what advocates are calling Mississippi's extreme discipline problem are part of a report released Thursday by the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. The report, "Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools," outlines how the practice of arresting, suspending and expelling young students for minor infractions -- known as "zero-tolerance policies" -- create a school-to-prison pipeline. The report says the practice has left the state with the country's sixth lowest graduation rate -- and 1.5 times the national average of imposing out-of-school suspensions.

While the issue may be more pronounced in Mississippi, zero-tolerance policies erode school districts nationwide, advocates say.

"The overuse of exclusionary discipline practices … is a rampant problem throughout the country," said Scott Roberts, a campaign coordinator with the Advancement Project.

More than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement were black or Hispanic, according to a U.S. Education Department Office of Civil Rights study based on data from 2009-10.

The indictment of zero-tolerance policies and in-school arrests in Mississippi comes as the Obama administration seeks to curb gun violence and make schools safer in light of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings in December. One component of Obama's plan, announced Tuesday, would give funding to schools for either school counselors or specially trained police, known as "school resource officers." The plan would create at least 1,000 new counselors and school resource officers, at the discretion of the schools.

But shortly after the announcement, members of the civil-rights community expressed their concerns that the move would disproportionately punish minority students.

“We already have approximately two police officers per public school in Chicago and in spite of that, I never felt any safer in my school. I wish they had used those resources to train my teachers and school staff on how to prevent conflict instead," Dwayne Hoye, a member of Blocks Together and the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and a graduate of Orr Academy High school, said in a statement.

"We should be investing billions in schools and not school police," said Manuel Criollo, who has worked with the Strategy Center to curb harsh school discipline in Los Angeles.

Criollo said that making the school resource officers optional showed that Obama had heard the civil rights groups' concerns about armed guards in schools -- but that wasn't enough for him. "Real leadership should make an articulate set of demands saying we need more counselors in schools, not more police officers," he said. "We've seen this build-up during the Clinton years -- we saw schools opting for police and not counselors after Columbine, leading to what you see now: the school-to-jail track in urban schools."

As CEO of Chicago Public Schools, now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan faced the tension of disproportionate school discipline with the need for safer schools firsthand. "There's no reason why additional school resources have to drive up the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline," Duncan told The Huffington Post Thursday. "Execution is really important. Taking time to train people in a really thoughtful way." 

It's not just the civil rights community that is worried. "There is a consensus among the school violence prevention community that we need evidence-based programs," said Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor who specializes in school discipline and violence prevention. "My concern about an overly quick move towards large numbers of school resource officers is that we don't have research about the effects of SROs."

In fact, the recent American Psychological Association's report on zero-tolerance policies bemoaned the lack of research on the topic. "What we do have raises serious concerns about the negative impact of school resource officers on school climate," Skiba said, and agreed with Duncan that the right training could make all the difference.

Meanwhile, Mississippi is contending with discipline-related problems. For example, this summer, the Department of Justice found that in Meridian, Miss., many schoolchildren were arrested without due cause.

James Mathis feels that his grandson fits into that category: After the 12-year-old child got into a shoving match, the principal allegedly said, "Aren't you happy now? You're going to jail."

A few minutes later, the boy was in handcuffs.

Mathis said Thursday, "To this day, I do not know why they called the police and had him arrested."

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