The Education Dept. reaches an out-of-court settlement with Tupelo Public School District over allegations that its disciplinary system meted out more harsh penalties for black students compared to white students.
DoEd’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that black students had been disproportionately subjected to discipline at every stage in the district’s discipline process. Last year, for example, the district only expelled black students.
In addition, the 8,000-student district implemented its discipline policies and procedures such that black students received harsher discipline than white students for similar offenses. Tupelo is one of the largest school districts in Mississippi.
The school district agreed to settle the complaints before any enforcement actions were taken, says Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights. Such violations can lead to both civil penalties and criminal charges.
OCR’s investigation found that black students made up nearly half of the student enrollment at the three schools (including Tupelo Middle School and Tupelo High School) with the highest numbers of disciplinary sanctions. Yet, black students received 81% of the disciplinary referrals and 77% of the in-school suspensions.
One problem was that administrators at all levels had broad discretion to identify misconduct as a violation of the discipline policies and punish it with exclusionary discipline, including out-of-school suspensions, referrals to the district alternative school and expulsion. Black students received 80% or more of these exclusionary discipline sanctions and assignments to the local juvenile detention center.
Students could be suspended out of school for 10 days for highly subjective offenses such as “improper behavior at school” and “other misbehavior.” These policies require reporting to the police and mandatory referrals for first-time offenses to a highly restrictive alternative school for a minimum of 45 days for fighting, 90 days for drinking or possessing alcohol and 180 days for possessing or being under the influence of drugs.
Under the agreement, which is effective immediately, the district promised to fix its disciplinary problems. Specifically, the district has agreed to take a number of corrective measures. Such as:
Ensure that misbehavior does not require removal from school.
- Review and revise the disciplinary policies and implement disciplinary practices that will effectively promote fair discipline.
- Provide training for staff and administrators on the disciplinary policies and behavioral expectations. Require school staff employ a range of corrective measures before referring a student to disciplinary authorities.
- Establish student, staff and parent committees to discuss matters concerning the equitable treatment of students.
- Conduct a comprehensive review of its use of law enforcement and provide law enforcement officials training that explains the district’s nondiscrimination obligations.