Federal Involvement in School Discipline Reform Yields Results

Last Updated: May 30, 2013

This article appeared in the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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The April edition of School Discipline Policy continues coverage of major developments during the period in which the RPM Special Report on School Violence temporarily replaced regular RPM features. These developments include efforts to stem the school-to-prison pipeline and to reduce corporal punishment in schools.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has settled its lawsuit against Meridian, Mississippi schools after investigating disciplinary practices that landed students in jail, particularly students of color. African-American students were five times more likely to be removed from school than white students.

DOJ officials have said they hope the agreement can be a model for other schools. The consent decree must be approved by a federal judge and fully implemented by the 2016–17 school year.

The district has begun implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as required by the consent decree. The decree also specifies that a PBIS office must be created within the district administration. Further, the decree lists specific rule infractions that, with only very limited exceptions, must be handled by school administration rather than law enforcement.

The reformed disciplinary code is described in great detail, including how discipline should be handled in alternative school settings and the use of out-of-school suspension. The decree requires training for school resource officers and monitoring of disciplinary data to identify racial disparities. Information sessions on PBIS are being held for parents

This consent decree will be incorporated into the desegregation order currently in effect in Meridian. DOJ also sued the city, county, court, and human services officials over the illegal procedures that resulted in Meridian students being jailed for dress code violations and other minor misbehaviors. (Editor’s note: See previous RPM coverage here.)

Current Meridian Superintendent Alvin Taylor has said that the school system has already implemented about half of the required reforms. The investigation was sparked by investigation of compliance with the desegregation order and parents’ complaints in 2010 about harsh punitive discipline of students.

Palm Beach County

In February, DOJ finalized a similar settlement with Florida’s Palm Beach County School System, where racially discriminatory trends in discipline were also uncovered. In that district, students who are English Language Learners (ELL) were also having difficulty enrolling in school.

The Palm Beach County agreement also places limits on when school officials may involve law enforcement in student disciplinary incidents. DOJ initiated the Florida investigation based on parent complaints about the district’s practice of requesting information about the immigration status of students’ parents.

That agreement requires that all forms for enrollment and discipline in the district be translated and that PBIS be implemented with fidelity throughout the district.

The district is required to hold student assemblies and sessions for parents to provide information about the policy changes. The parent sessions must include information on how parents can formally raise concerns about district disciplinary practices.

As part of its investigation, the DOJ analyzed disciplinary data from Palm Beach schools, which have an enrollment of 179,000, including 20,000 ELL students. The Florida investigation was a result of complaints filed in 2011 by the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society and the Florida Equal Justice Center. Those organizations cited students not being allowed to enroll in school and harsh discipline for minor misbehaviors.

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Read more from the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.