Youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every point of contact with the juvenile justice system, and they are more likely to be incarcerated and to serve more time than white youth. Disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system has resulted in the startling fact that 1 in 3 Black boys and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment in their lifetime. Much of this contact with the justice system begins with inappropriate and discriminatory discipline practices in schools. This past Friday, the United States Department of Justice took action against a school district in Mississippi for violating Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, among other bases, in public schools.
The Justice Department announced that, jointly with the Meridian Public School District in Meridian, Miss., and private plaintiffs, it has filed a landmark consent decree to prevent and address racial discrimination in student discipline in district schools. If approved by the court, the proposed consent decree will resolve the department’s investigation into complaints that the district unlawfully and disproportionately subjects black students to suspension, expulsion and school-based arrest, often for minor infractions. In the course of the investigation, the department found that black students frequently received harsher disciplinary consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories. The consent decree would amend a longstanding federal school desegregation decree enforced by the United States, which prohibits the district from discriminating against students based on race.
The consent decree:
- Limits exclusionary discipline such as suspension, alternative placement and expulsion, and prohibits exclusionary discipline for minor misbehavior;
- Prohibits school officials from involving law enforcement officers to respond to behavior that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures;
- Requires training for school law enforcement officers on bias-free policing, child and adolescent development and age appropriate responses, practices proven to improve school climate, mentoring and working with school administrators ;
- Revises policies at the district’s alternative school to create clear entry and exit criteria and provide appropriate supports to speed students’ transitions back to their home schools;
- Requires enhanced due process protections in student discipline hearings;
- Expands use of a behavior and discipline management system known as positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) at all schools;
- Requires teachers and administrators to use developmentally appropriate tiered prevention and intervention strategies before removing students from instruction;
- Requires monitoring of discipline data to identify and respond to racial disparities;
- Requires training on all revised policies and procedures; and
- Implements measures to engage families and communities as partners in revising policies and as participants in regular school and community informational forums.
All schools should make it a priority to ensure that they are not disproportionately sending students of color to become involved with the criminal justice system, thereby damaging their track to healthy development. It is possible to ensure the safety of all students and creating an environment conducive to learning, while at the same time appropriately disciplining delinquent behavior. CSSP’s Youth Thrive initiative builds a model for the healthy development and well-being of youth by increasing protective and promotive factors while reducing risk factors.
There is a role for policymakers in this process, especially state and local officials because the juvenile justice system is administered at the state level. See the Center for the Study Policy’s section on Reducing Juvenile Detention for a number of policy recommendations for reducing racial disparities. Also, stay tuned for a new Policy for Results section on Preventing Juvenile Delinquency.