Handcuffs on Success is a January 2013 report detailing the truth and consequences of The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi where harsh discipline practices, based on often subjective and age-appropriate infractions are resulting in inappropriately severe punishment to police-involved arrests and incarceration.
Being only 1 of 19 states still allowing corporal punishment, Mississippi led the highest percentage of students physically punished during the 2005-2006 school year at 7.5% which amounted to 38,131 students. (The only other state resulting in more students being hit by educators was Texas at 49,197 or 1.1% of the statewide student body.)
This report by civil rights group ACLU (Mississippi), NAACP (Mississippi), and the Advancement Project (being a few organizations comprising the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse), this report highlights and details the Mississippi education and discipline problem, how it affects the education of students, the psychological and sociological implications, national & racial disparities, as well as the monetary cost associated with such extreme discipline practices.
Alleging a pattern of "unlawful conduct," the United States Department of Justice recently filed suit against one such Mississippi County:
"In October 2012, the United States Department of Justice filed suit against the city of Meridian, the County of Lauderdale, two youth court judges, the State of Mississippi, and two state agencies for operating a school-to-prison pipeline. (2) The complaint alleges that these actors are “engag[ing] in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights.” (3) Among other disturbing facts, the complaint alleges that Meridian schools repeatedly respond to infractions such as “disrespect,” “refusal to follow directions,” and “profanity” by referring students to law enforcement. They also routinely suspend students on juvenile probation, resulting in their automatic incarceration, for such low-level behaviors as use of vulgar language, flatulence in class, and dress code infractions like having a shirt untucked. (4)"
The "Handcuffs on Success" report unveils a problem, not simply with one county, but statewide. The report is calling on Mississippi legislators and education officials to reform these harsh disciplinary and punitive practices. The following are some of the high points taken from the report.
Extreme Discipline in Mississippi Public Schools
For well over a decade, heartbreaking stories of extreme discipline and the criminalization of young people have poured out of Mississippi public schools.
• In 2000, what began with a few students playfully throwing peanuts at one another on a school bus ended in five Black male high school students being arrested for felony assault, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. When one of the peanuts accidentally hit the white female bus driver, the bus driver immediately pulled over to call the police, who diverted the bus to the courthouse where the students were questioned. (5) The Sheriff commented to one newspaper, “[T]his time it was peanuts, but if we don’t get a handle on it, the next time it could be bodies.” (6)
• Around the same time, for one 4th grade Black girl, minor disrespectful behavior led to her being pushed out of her school entirely. After refusing to participate in a class assignment, she was suspended out-of-school for three days for “defiance of authority.” Subsequently, she was given another three day out-of-school suspension for “defiance of authority” for humming and tapping her desk. The school then referred her to an alternative education program for “drug-related activity,” when she wore one pant leg up, although there was no other indication of any involvement with drugs. When the alternative school would not accept her because it provided instruction for grades 5-12 only, the school district promoted her despite her failing grades, in order to get her out of the mainstream school. (7)
• More recently, in 2009 in Southaven, DeSoto County, armed police officers responded to an argument between three students on a school bus by reportedly arresting a half dozen Black students, choking and tackling one Black female student, and threatening to shoot the other students on the bus between their eyes. (8)
• In 2010, one Black mother in Holmes County reported opening her door one morning to a police officer on her doorstep. Over his shoulder, she could see her frightened five-year-old son locked in the back seat. Her child’s crime: violating the dress code. Her son’s school required solid black shoes, and despite her best efforts to cover them with a black marker, red and white symbols were still visible on her son’s black shoes. When she followed up with her son’s principal, he justified his actions by telling her that her son needed to be “taught a lesson.” (9)
• In 2010, in Jackson Public School District, until a lawsuit was filed, staff at one school regularly handcuffed students to metal railings in the school gymnasium and left them there for hours if they were caught not wearing a belt, among other minor infractions. For example, one 14-year-old boy was reportedly handcuffed to the railing when he wore a stocking cap to class, threw his papers on the ground, and refused to do his school work. (10)
• In 2011, a high school student was suspended and sent to alternative school for five weeks after his school administrators learned about a rap song he had written and recorded, while at home, about his school. (40)
• In the last few years, in Meridian, a male student estimated that he went back and forth between school and the juvenile justice system thirty times. In 8th grade, he was put on probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight. Since then, reportedly any infraction, even some as minor as being a few minutes late to class or wearing the wrong color socks in violation of the dress code, was counted as a violation of his probation and resulted in immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center. (11)
The fact that the academic and psychological impact of arrest and incarceration on youth is deeply harmful and far-reaching was further highlighted in interviews with multiple Mississippi students and families.
- One mother described how, after her child was sent to a Juvenile Detention Center for a classroom disruption, he would cry and beg his mother not to send him back to school because he no longer felt safe there. (55)
- Another student from Jones County described how, after being arrested for a minor fight in the lunch room, she suffered anxiety-induced asthma attacks during subsequent interactions with school administration. (56)
Racial Disparities in Discipline
• In an interview, the mother of a Black middle school student in Jones County detailed how her son was arrested and charged with assault when he got in a schoolyard scuffle with a White student who had used racial epithets to refer to his Black peers. According to the mother, the White student was not disciplined for his actions. (61)
• A Black 9th grader in Jones County, MS recounted the story of a Black classmate who was expelled for using marijuana and chewing tobacco in the bathroom. According to the student, a White student caught for the same offense was only suspended for a few days. The 9th grader went on to explain: The White kids don't get handcuffed. If a White kid gets into an altercation it depends on who they are and how they act . . . . They won't go to jail. They will just get suspended for three to five days and come back to school. . . . . I was handcuffed and arrested for getting into a fight at school. They took us straight from school to the detention center where we were stripped of our clothes, forced to shower in front of others, and required to take a drug test. We had to spend the night there. I had never been in trouble in school before. (62)
Harsh Discipline & Criminalization is Costly
To use the example of a first time school offense: A kid is caught fighting. Instead of a suspension or detention, he's handcuffed, arrested, and taken to a juvenile detention center. Stripped [or strip-searched] and forced to shower in front of other kids, he might feel demeaned and already like a criminal at this point, even though he's never been in trouble before.
His modesty & 'right to be secure in his person' is snatched away. His sense of security at school is now consistently threatened. Even the idea that his parents are his protectors is stolen because he has to sleep overnight at juvey.
He might now have lingering trauma associated with the event; This may cause him to begin acting out, taking to drugs or gangs, or refusing to go to school at all. In effect, he could be led from school directly into the criminal justice system without so much as a school record of violence OR a counseling session.
This will not only cost our imagined teenager HIS potential but will continue to cost Mississippi.
• Mississippi’s graduation rate is the 6th lowest among the 50 states, a distinction that is tied to high rates of suspension, expulsion and arrests. Across the state, the districts with the highest number of out-of-school suspensions have the lowest metrics of academic success.
• Overly harsh discipline policies can trigger a cycle of crime. Young people who are removed from school are less likely to have adult supervision and more likely to drop out – factors that have been shown to increase the chances of future misbehavior by youth.
• From 1990 to 2007, Mississippi’s penal system expanded by 166%, and the State’s correction costs have increased by well over $100 million a year in the last decade.
Mississippi's education system needs to reform AWAY from harsh unmeasured discipline. Scare tactics & the criminalization of kids behaving like kids is not going to further the goal for an educated Mississippi. Children, kids, or teenagers come with their own set of age appropriate problems; Casually criminalizing them [arrested for not wearing black shoes?] or using excessive discipline not commensurate with the infraction is not in Mississippi's sociological or economic best interest.
And forget "the state." It's not in the best interest of the kid.