JACKSON, Miss. – A majority-Black Mississippi school district received a judge's approval Tuesday to shed federal supervision in a decades-old desegregation lawsuit that included a 2013 order to move away from harsh discipline that disproportionately affected Black students.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate praised the Meridian Public School District for reducing the number of suspensions that led some students to drop out of school.
“Meridian is no longer known for a school-to-prison pipeline,” the district's superintendent, Amy Carter, told Wingate during a hearing in Jackson.
The Justice Department announced in 2013 that it would enter a consent decree with the Meridian schools for the district to improve disciplinary practices. The department said at the time that its investigation found 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.”
Attorneys for the Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday that they had no objection to Wingate granting “unitary status” to the Meridian schools, a designation that shows the district has eliminated vestiges of prior segregation and no longer needs federal supervision.
Carter has worked for the Meridian schools for 25 years and has been superintendent the past seven. She said the district changed its approach to discipline by moving toward a method of PBIS — positive behavior intervention and supports — to teach students to make better decisions for themselves. She said the schools are also using “Leader In Me,” a program that develops students' leadership skills.
Carter said parents, teachers and staff also were taught about the new approaches.
The Meridian district has about 4,600 students and more than 900 employees, Carter said. She said about 93% of students and about 60% to 65% of employees are Black.
Carter said that in the past decade, the district has gone from about 10,000 student suspensions a year to about 1,200.
Wingate, 76, who is Black, said he grew up in segregated Mississippi and remembers being treated harshly when his high school basketball team from Jackson went to Meridian to compete. He said he would allow the Meridian schools to leave federal oversight only if he believed that was the right move for the students and the community.
Several parents and district employees submitted written comments to Wingate this year, praising the Meridian schools' current approach to discipline.
“During the short time that I’ve worked with the Meridian Public School District, I’ve realized that these employees show great love and respect for each other, the students, and the community,” wrote Tujuana Frost, who identified herself as Black and did not specify what kind of job she holds in the district.
Nancy S. Walton, who identified herself as white, wrote: "Overall, I feel as if the culture and climate of our school has changed for the better. Students feel more inclusive and form relationships with teachers (especially those teachers who excel in positive behavior modifications).”
The desegregation lawsuit against the Meridian school district was originally filed in 1965, and a federal judge in 1967 ordered the district to end discrimination based on race. The Justice Department periodically sent teams to investigate how the district was complying, according to court records. The department started receiving complaints about the district's harsh discipline practices in 2010.
Meridian is near the Alabama border in east central Mississippi. The city has about 33,800 residents. About 66% are Black and 31% are white.