Mississippi Grassroots Organization Files Federal Complaint Against School Board and School District

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                             

Contact:  Jumoke Balogun, (816) 517-0354, jbalogun@advancementproject.org

April 28, 2015                                                

Mississippi Grassroots Organization Files Federal Complaint Against School Board and School District, Citing Racial Discrimination in Discipline Policies

Black Desoto County Parents and Students Challenge Disparities in Suspension Rates

DESOTO COUNTY, MISS. – For nearly three years, a group of parents, grandparents and concerned citizens in DeSoto County have advocated for a new Code of Discipline to address stark racial disparities in the administration of student discipline. Yet their advocacy efforts with school administrators to revise discriminatory policies have either been ignored or met with false promises.

Today, the community group Desoto County Parents and Students for Justice (DCPSJ), along with national civil rights organization Advancement Project, took bold action. On behalf of DCPSJ, Advancement Project filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the DeSoto County School District and the DeSoto County Board of Education, challenging the disproportionate suspension of Black students in DeSoto County Schools.

The complaint, which details the racially discriminatory impact of DeSoto County’s Code of Conduct on Black children, was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Details in the complaint include:

·         The most recent federal data, which 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 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.

“What these numbers tell us is that suspension rates in DeSoto County reflect the old segregated system that divided Black and White students while I was growing up,” said Thomas Plunkett, DCPSJ member and DeSoto County NAACP President. “Today we know that there is only one Code of Conduct in DeSoto County public schools, but it is applied differently to Black and White students.”

“I am raising two Black sons in DeSoto County Schools, and I have a firsthand account of how school officials have maintained discriminatory discipline practices that push Black students from school for minor, age-appropriate misbehavior,” said parent Cassandra Norwood. “My elementary school- age son was punished for saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘yes ma’am.’ I want the district to treat all students equally and fairly. I don’t want my children to be targeted and excluded simply because of their race.”

The filing in DeSoto County is reminiscent of Meridian, Miss., which had similar disparities in suspension rates for Black and White students until the Department of Justice took action and entered into a consent decree with the school district in 2013 to prevent and address discrimination in student discipline. Now students in Meridian benefit from a less subjective code of conduct, alternatives to suspension and expulsion, and an accountability structure that ensures that all students are treated equitably. 

“Following recent guidance from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education that recognized the damaging effects of harsh and exclusionary disciplinary policies like the ones used in DeSoto County, school districts across the country are implementing fair, common sense discipline policies,” said Thena Robinson-Mock, Program Director for Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Program. “Those school districts are also seeing an increased in student achievement. It’s time for DeSoto County to follow suit.”

“We have worked tirelessly for several years to bring these issues to the attention of DeSoto County school officials,” said James Mathis, chairperson of DCPSJ. “We have spoken before the DeSoto County School Board numerous times, have had several meetings with district officials and have met with Superintendent Milton Kuykendalon more than one occasion. It is clear to us that federal intervention is needed in DeSoto County, and we urge the Office for Civil Rights to open the complaint for investigation.”

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DeSoto County Parents and Students for Justice is a diverse, community-based organization with a desire to ensure that a safe and equal education is provided for all students, regardless of race, disability, and economic status. It is our mission to end the school-to-prison pipeline and increase the chances for future success for the students in our county. 

Advancement Project is a multi-racial civil rights organization. Founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers in 1999, Advancement Project was created to develop and inspire community-based solutions based on the same high quality legal analysis and public education campaigns that produced the landmark civil rights victories of earlier eras.