Nationwide, far more often than not, the subjects of restraint and seclusion are children of color and children with disabilities. That’s evident in Mississippi, according to 2009 data from the Office of Civil Rights. Of the total 715 incidents of restraint and seclusion reported by schools that year, 72 percent involved black or Hispanic students while 28 percent involved white students.
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L. René Hardwick, grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and returned to Jackson several years ago after working as a university professor and administrator and a K-12 consultant and advocate in places like Atlanta; Durham, North Carolina; and Baltimore.
Now the advocacy coordinator for the restraint-and-seclusion project run by the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union, she said there are cultural and historical factors at work here that influence attitudes toward behavior management and classroom discipline. Those factors are at least partially rooted in Mississippi’s painful history of segregation.
“What’s going on in Mississippi and particularly Jackson … is simply a microcosm of the legacy of oppression that hovers over Mississippi as a state and us as a country,” she said.
“I believe you have certain groups, some of whom are our legislators, who are dedicated and determined to support” the status quo of white supremacy, either out of fear or ignorance, she said.
Now in Mississippi, when a child doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions, “you don’t know where that case will lead,” Hardwick said.
If a child is being disruptive or fails to obey a teacher’s request, the “natural propensity of school personnel” in Mississippi, Hardwick said, is not, “to teach that child and guide that child, which takes time and needs to be repeated over and over to correct behavior.”
Many of Mississippi’s 490,225 students arrive at school from family environments strained by poverty and neglect, so it’s imperative that educators are prepared to meet them at the doors, Hardwick said. That means presenting school as a place of refuge, nurturing interpersonal relationships between adults and children, setting high expectations for teachers and parents, and, in the classroom, rooting curriculum in students’ real-life experiences.
Ensuring staff receive better training to prevent and respond to crisis situations involving children with disabilities and those in the general population is also badly needed, she said.
“What we’re pushing for is the tone of the policy to not be in reactive mode but to be in proactive mode,” Hardwick said, meaning it should promote a “climate of positive intervention” that starts at the top with effective district- and building-level leadership.
Some Mississippi schools have tried to address the problem of disruptive students on their own. In 2012, an alternative school for children who’d been suspended or expelled from other schools agreed to stop shackling students to fixed objects after the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jackson Public Schools in 2011. The SPLC alleged that students were “handcuffed and shackled to poles” for up to six hours for non-criminal offenses such as violating the dress code or talking back to a teacher, Reuters reported.