All children deserve access to safe, high quality schools. For many Black students and parents, this is not a guarantee. For three years, parents, grandparents and other community leaders in DeSoto County have urged school officials to reform discriminatory school disciplinary policies and practices that disproportionately impact Black students, including many Black students with disabilities. Confronted with inaction, DeSoto County Parents and Students for Justice (DCPSJ) filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in April 2015. DCPSJ filed this complaint in partnership with Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, to challenge the disproportionate suspension of Black students in DeSoto County Schools. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) responded to the complaint and announced plans to investigate the groups’ claims. OCR’s decision to open an investigation marks a significant victory for DCPSJ, and parents and students across throughout DeSoto County, Mississippi.
“For years, Black students have been disproportionately suspended, pushed out of school and denied valuable time in the classroom due to racially discriminatory policies,” said James Mathis, Chairperson of DCPSJ. “We know from data that these students weren’t behaving any worse than their counterparts, yet they have been repeatedly denied a high quality education. The Department of Education’s decision to investigate DeSoto County Schools affirms the lived experiences of Black students and their families, who have been unfairly excluded by DeSoto County’s school-to-prison pipeline.”
Should the Department of Education find evidence of discrimination in DeSoto County Schools, the District may find itself in a situation similar to that of Meridian, Miss., where the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree in 2013 to prevent and address discrimination in student discipline. Details in the complaint include:
- The most recent federal data indicates that while Black students represent 32% of the student population in DeSoto County, they make up 55% of all students suspended.
- Black children are suspended for longer periods of time and often for minor offenses.
- At all but one of 42 schools in DeSoto County, Black students were suspended at a much higher rate than White students during the 2011-2012 school year.
- At four schools in DeSoto County, Black students were suspended over four times more than their White peers.
- 81% of the students with disabilities referred to law enforcement in 2011-2012 were Black.
“The old segregated system between Black and White students has influenced the current discipline system in DeSoto County Schools,” said Mathis. “Today there is only one code of conduct, but administrators apply it differently to Black and White students.”
“Mississippi is often referred to as a state that consistently ranks at the bottom in educational equity and graduation rates for Black youth,” added Thena Robinson Mock, Project Director of Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Campaign. “But I’m here to let you know that there is a movement afoot in Mississippi -- a movement led by a mighty force of parents, grandparents, and young people who refuse to accept the vestiges of Mississippi’s segregated past that has translated into a school-to-prison pipeline.”
“We are proud to stand with the brave members of DCPSJ in their fight for justice and a quality education for all students in DeSoto County,” said Jadine Johnson, a Staff Attorney from Advancement Project, the national civil rights organization representing DCPSJ. “We urge the Office for Civil Rights to conduct a thorough investigation and come to a resolution that will protect students of color and students with disabilities and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“I believe that we can make positive changes in DeSoto Public Schools and provide students with the education they deserve,” said Mathis. “Our work will not end until DeSoto County Schools is a safe environment for all students, regardless of race or disability. The Department of Education’s decision to investigate our complaint is a step in that direction.”