The story of a quaint Mississippi town accused of systematically imprisoning students for minor offenses — such as wearing the wrong color socks — and punishing them without due process of law may sound like the plot of a cooked-up horror story, but in Meridian, Miss., it's a sad and unthinkable reality.
The Justice Department recently filed a lawsuit against the city, Lauderdale County, judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court, and the state of Mississippi for operating what it called a "school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated."
Unfortunately, the injustices in Meridian are not isolated events. A new report shows similar events have happened across Mississippi, including in Jackson, where public-school staff admitted to handcuffing students to metal railings for hours. In Louisiana, more than 300,000 students are suspended and expelled each year, many of them for minor behavior issues or what could be explained as simple childhood mistakes.
Out-of-school suspensions not only have dire consequences for those suspended, but for entire communities. Students who are suspended from the classroom are more likely to drop out, which in turn increases the likelihood they will be incarcerated later in life. Harsh punishments undermine the positive work of educators. In our state education systems, it can also increase resentment and distrust of law-enforcement officials, which makes their efforts less effective and in turn can also decrease overall public health and safety.
And then there are the financial costs. It's estimated that zero-tolerance and harsh discipline policies can cost states such as Mississippi and Louisiana hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and these costs continue for years to come in the form of lost tax revenue, higher health costs, higher public-assistance costs, and increased criminal-justice costs.
This isn't just a problem in the South. Nationally, 3.3 million of our nation's students are suspended from school every year — enough students to fill every seat in all of the NFL stadiums combined.
How this punishment is handed down is highly discriminatory. According to a recent study, black and Latino students and students with disabilities are more likely than their white peers to be given harsher punishments for minor misbehavior and issued out-of-school suspensions.
Nationwide, nearly one in six black students and one in 14 Latino students were suspended at least once in 2009-2010, compared with just one in 20 of their white classmates. In Mississippi, black students received almost 75 percent of the out-of-school suspensions — making them almost three times as likely as their white classmates to be suspended.
Contrary to stereotypes, it's not just our young men who are being suspended. Studies have shown that like their male classmates, young women of color are often pushed out of the classroom for minor violations and now make up the fastest-growing segment of our juvenile-justice system.
Our kids deserve better. Fortunately, there are communities, schools, and advocates who are working throughout the South and nationwide to promote alternatives to suspensions and keep kids in the classroom. In addition, education advocates at the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign are raising awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline, and they joined the Dignity in Schools Campaign to launch Solutions Not Suspensions, a national initiative calling for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions.
The momentum for change is building. The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights recently held the first-ever congressional hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Connecticut and Maryland have both passed statewide measures to keep kids in school and make out-of-school suspensions a punishment of last resort. And schools from New York to California are implementing alternative disciplinary strategies to address student behavior problems.
Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline isn't an easy task, but students who are suspended, expelled, and arrested in school do not disappear — they show up in the streets, in the unemployment line, and in our jails. Instead of continuing to enforce policies that "get tough" on school discipline, we ought to instead "get smart" about how we treat our youth.
We want safe and orderly schools that protect teachers, school staff, and students from harm, and need to come together to develop a plan that keeps everyone safe while providing our children with the educational opportunities that they deserve. By implementing common-sense disciplinary practices that provide students, parents, and teachers the support they need, we are sure to see dramatic improvements in school quality, public health, public safety, and economic prosperity.
Derrick Johnson is president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP and president and CEO of One Voice Mississippi, a non-profit organization focused on the housing, education, and related policy advocacy needs facing Mississippi's disadvantaged communities.
Gina Womack is executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, a statewide membership-based organization that fights for a better life for all of Louisiana's youth, especially those involved in or targeted by the juvenile-justice system.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.