If you are considering a move and have school-age children, you would do well to mark Mississippi off your list of possibilities unless you wouldn’t mind your students being in schools where students are being unnecessarily criminalized due to a zero-tolerance policy for practically all school infractions. A new report, Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools, was released in January 2013. Just the title alone should send chills up and down the spines of anyone who cares about the welfare of children.
Perhaps the most extreme case noted in the report was about an elementary school in Mississippi where children are required to wear black shoes. A five-year-old kindergartener did not own any black shoes, thus his mother, in an attempt to keep her son in compliance with the school’s dress code, used a black marker to cover his red and white sneakers. Unfortunately, a bit of the red and white design remained and was noticed by someone on staff. Was the mother given any credit for her effort to meet the school’s dress code? No. Was she given the courtesy of a call so she could either bring her black marker to cover the offensive red and white splotch still showing? NO! Was she even called to come pick her son up and to keep him home until she could afford to buy him some black shoes. No!
Instead, this five-year-old black boy was treated as if he was a common criminal. Imagine his confusion when police officers arrived to take him home. What must he have been thinking when he placed in the back seat of the police cruiser where the real bad guys have to sit once they are captured for breaking the law.
Why did school officials take such extreme measures over the color of a child’s shoes? School officials said it was to teach both the mother and child a lesson.
Having been the assistant superintendent for administrative services for Suffolk Public Schools for 8 years, I have absolutely no problem with zero-tolerance policies which have been carefully designed to protect students from individuals or groups who pose a threat to them on any school property or at any school event. Having said that, zero tolerance policies were never intended for and never should be used as tools to handle issues which can easily be resolved either by the teacher or school administration.
Mississippi ranks 45th among states in graduation rates. It is ranked 50th on a recent Science and Engineering Index for high school students in physics and calculus. It also ranked last on the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey.
Could these pitiful rankings be related to unfair discipline measures which subject students to multiple suspensions and expulsions? An examination of some other unreasonable consequences for incidents include:
- Sending a student to a juvenile detention center for wearing the wrong color socks. It was considered a probation violation from a prior fight.
- Five students were playfully throwing peanuts at each other while riding a bus. The five black male high school students were arrested on felony assault charges because one of the peanuts hit the white female bus driver.
- Talking back lands students in jail in Lauderdale County, MS. Students can also be incarcerated for dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect.
Some Mississippi schools have out-of-school suspension rates that are more than 9 times higher than the national average. A disproportionate number of minority students and students with disabilities are being suspended, expelled and jailed for minor infractions.
Is the Mississippi Public School System mired deeply in institutional racism or are these examples of pure racism? Either way, when a state’s most valuable assets are being served up to the penal system, starting as early as age 5, for not wearing the right color shoes, socks or other dress code violations, something is terribly, terribly wrong.