OXFORD, Miss. – “At 12 p.m. today, I received a phone call that a 10-year-old had committed suicide,” Family Court Judge Chandlee Kuhn told an audience of mostly law students recently at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
“Bullying was a factor; child mental health and the Division of Family Services were involved; and his 5-year-old sibling found him.”
Kuhn’s remarks were part of a Sept. 27 panel discussion on civil rights issues related to education that was organized by the U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. October has been designated as national Bullying Prevention Awareness Month by PACER’s National Center for Bullying Prevention.
Kuhn was among four legal experts who weighed in on civil rights issues of bullying and the “school to prison pipeline” during discussion. More than 25 U.S. attorneys attended the discussion.To the tune of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, a video highlighting past milestones of the university’s 1962 integration introduced the panel discussion, aimed to bring awareness to some of the grave issues that are preventing students from receiving an equal right to education.
With Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez moderating, Anne Tompkins, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, discussed anti-bullying from the federal perspective, while Bear Atwood, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, focused on school and cyber bullying, and the unintended consequences of zero-tolerance policies.
Referencing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Department of Justice uses to bring action against school systems that fail to act on known instances of bullying, Tompkins reminded the audience that bullying in school deprives students of equal access to education.
Unlike some other states, Mississippi has no enforcement of bullying policies, Atwood said.
“Bullying was ignored by schools and communities in the past and seen as a rite of passage,” Atwood said. “It’s not a new phenomenon, but now we understand the underlying causes and consequences – poor health and school performance. There are lifelong implications that put some students on a different track. There needs to be a change in the culture.”
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 25 percent of student victims were bullied about their race or religion. But state policy-makers have been unwilling to enumerate specific “biased-based” bullying criteria and have chosen to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, which can often punish both the victim and the bully, she said.
The disproportionate discipline of minority students also continues to be a concern with the zero-tolerance policy, the panelists agreed.
Data compiled by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force indicates that rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, school suspensions actually predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension. In fact, in the long term, school suspension and expulsion are linked to higher likelihoods of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.
Other experts on the panel focused on one consequence of the zero-tolerance policy: the “school to prison pipeline,” where an increased reliance on more severe consequences has resulted in increased referrals to the juvenile system. Jody Owens, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, discussed the investigations of several Mississippi juvenile detention centers, which are state-mandated to be short-term rehabilitation centers. However, students are not being rehabilitated, Owens said.
“Why were these kids in detention centers?” he said. “We found that they were coming from the school systems – regular schools and alternative schools. Unfortunately, this year in a Jackson public school, an alternative school, students were being routinely handcuffed for dress code violations, placed in the cafeteria or the gym until the end of the day, then sent home.”
Students in these circumstances obviously have trouble succeeding and have been stripped of their civil rights, Owens said.
“Some kids were being denied due process,” he said. “We know the system is flawed.”
Attendee Barbara McQuade, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said the discussion was valuable.
“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to commemorate the anniversary of the admission of James Meredith, but acknowledge the work that is yet to be done in civil rights, particularly in education,” McQuade said. “The ‘pipeline’ is an issue that often impacts students from challenged socio-economic circumstances. And schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies, where a student makes a mistake and are cast out of classrooms and set up for more adversity as perpetrators or victims of crime. Taking a look at those systems to see if they are working for all of our kids is very important.”
The discussion was open for audience comments. Ellen Foster, an assistant professor in the UM School of Education, questioned why there were no educators on the panel.
“I think we, as educators, need to be in the discussion,” Foster said. “Including classroom teacher, who are in the trenches, and the administrators – because those are two different perspectives – they have different issues and concerns. There are some kids that are not successful in education as we have envisioned it in the last 20 years. I’m not sure the answer, but a variety of settings will serve more students.”
On the “pipeline” issue, Foster said she is saddened to hear the data reflecting what she has seen in the classroom.
“Teachers (should) teach the students that are in the room,” Foster said. “Plyler v. Doe in 1982 says that we teach all comers. If we are not willing to teach all comers, then we are in the wrong business.
“At Ole Miss, we make that really clear to our candidates, and we have some of the best candidates. We can do more. Nothing is going to change in Mississippi unless we change it. Education in Mississippi won’t change unless teachers change it. We need to be a part of the conversation.”