Police in Schools Increase Arrests, According to Report on Discipline in Mississippi

Last Updated: April 11, 2013

This article appeared in the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

In Mississippi, black students are three times as likely as white students to receive an out-of-school suspension, according to Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools, a report released in January about the school discipline crisis in the Magnolia State. In the most severe case in the report, one school district suspends 63.4 of every hundred students.

The report was released cooperatively by the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse.

According to the report, a number of Mississippi school districts are well above the national average for suspensions. Student advocates and organizations that have endorsed the report also blame law-enforcement-style discipline policies for pushing students out of school.

The report says that three key strategies adopted from criminal justice procedures are causing harsh discipline such as suspensions and expulsions. These include mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes laws, and “broken windows” policing, a law enforcement strategy of aggressively policing traditionally ignored minor offenses with the intended purpose of preventing more serious crimes.

These policing tactics are mimicked in local district discipline practices through zero-tolerance rules, policies that permit suspension and expulsion for an accumulation of minor infractions, and allowing the use of the harshest punishments for first-time, low-level offenses.

The disciplinary crisis in Mississippi has been widely reported. Handcuffs on Success recounts some of the most shocking cases, including one in which a kindergartener was placed in a squad car and driven home for not wearing all-black shoes to school. The child’s mother had inked in black some of the trim on the shoes in order to comply with dress code.

The report points to increased law enforcement presence in schools as a factor in the school to prison pipeline. It specifically cites the following issues in the dynamic: a shift in basic responsibility for student discipline from teachers and administrators to police officers, criminalization of normal childhood and adolescent mild misbehavior, and school environments focused on punishment rather than on cultivating good behaviors.

The report has been noted for its stark contrast to calls to increase police presence and employ other security/law enforcement tactics in schools in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. Many supporters of the Mississippi report, along with other advocates, say that increasing police presence does not increase safety, but instead increases the likelihood that a student will be arrested for a minor incident of misbehavior.

The Obama Administration has proposed making funding available to states for schools that wish to hire police officers. There are also legislative proposals in several states that would mandate some sort of police presence in schools. In Mississippi for example, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has proposed providing matching grants of up to $10,000 to school districts to help increase the number of certified, trained law enforcement officers in schools.

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, is quoted in the Washington Post saying, “Young people would be more apt to be arrested with the added presence of law enforcement at schools.” Handcuffs on Success also notes that students who have had negative experiences with officers in schools will be less likely to cooperate with and support law enforcement later, weakening the protective effect of police in communities.

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) responded to the report by pointing out that districts establish their own discipline policies and that the Department has provided training to districts on addressing discipline issues. Notably, there are no standards or guidelines for discipline policies set by the state.

Handcuffs on Success makes a number of recommendations, which include the following: requiring districts to report and MDE to review discipline data; requiring annual review and opportunity for community input on how well districts are reducing exclusionary discipline; and making resources available to support schools in the development of positive school climates. The report also calls for the development of cooperative agreements between community stakeholders, community organizations, parents, students, districts, the juvenile justice system, and law enforcement to work together to limit the number of school referrals to law enforcement and juvenile court, reduce the disproportionate contact students of color have with school discipline and the juvenile justice system, increase graduation rates, and decrease the use of state and local funds for juvenile justice interventions for minor misbehavior in school.

Read more:

Media coverage of the report:

Response of the Mississippi Department of Education to the report:

Read the full report here:

Read more from the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.