Education suspended, rights infringed

Guest Contributor - 9th April 2013

By Jadine Johnson –

On Monday, March 25th, ninety-seven students at Leflore High School in Mobile, Alabama were suspended. These students were not suspended for drugs or weapons. They were not fighting or being disruptive. These students were suspended for violating Leflore’s uniform policy — some had simply worn the wrong colour jackets or socks to school.

In Mobile County, students are suspended so often for minor infractions that it has become the norm. The recent suspension of nearly 100 students at Leflore High School is the most recent example of what happens all across the South, and the United States.

Suspended students miss valuable class time, and endure major setbacks in their educational and emotional development. Suspended students are often left at home unsupervised, which may lead to arrest and juvenile court involvement. At school, some students are arrested for minor misbehaviour like cursing or running down the halls. Children as young as five have been arrested for temper tantrums. These patterns are often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. In December, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights held a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline urging school districts to reexamine their discipline policies. Many districts are beginning to question why they rely so much on out-of-school suspensions even though this reliance has a detrimental effect on students.

Absent expulsion, suspension is the most extreme form of school discipline available in many public schools. And research shows suspensions are not equally distributed. Recent civil rights data shows that students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended. Nationally, black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students. Two weeks ago, the US Department of Justice filed a consent decree in Meridian, Mississippi to address and prevent racial discrimination in school discipline.

School discipline is important, but it should be effective, instructive, and it should not harm students. Districts should adequately fund and implement discipline alternatives to suspension like restorative justice. Such methods will improve student behavior and the overall environment for students, teachers and administrators.

The Southern Poverty Law Center advocates on behalf of children and families in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. We have worked in Mobile, Alabama for the past three years to help improve educational access and opportunity for all students, and were shocked to learn of the recent suspensions. In 2011, we filed a lawsuit to protect students like these from illegal long-term suspensions and are awaiting the trial, which is scheduled for August 2013. We agree with Mobile parents, ministers and children who say suspensions are being over-used.

Every child deserves a quality education. Ensuring that every child has access to an equal education is a civil right. It is a human right.

Jadine Johnson is a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center

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