By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Mississippi school district agreed on Friday to change how it disciplines students after civil rights lawyers found its black students were more likely to be suspended than whites, even when accused of similar code violations.
The agreement shows the Justice Department taking an aggressive approach to discipline in local schools when it believes civil rights are in jeopardy.
The Meridian Public School District and the Justice Department filed a proposed order in District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to settle allegations first made by local residents in 2010.
The order prohibits the use of suspensions for minor misbehavior such as dress code violations, and prohibits the school from involving law enforcement in disciplinary cases that the schools can handle safely themselves.
Justice Department lawyers asked for the changes under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which authorizes the department to act when it finds discrimination in schools.
In Meridian, once a student was referred out of a classroom for misbehavior, the student was five times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension if he was black than if he was white, according to the department.
"This is one of the ways in which, unfortunately, segregation continues in our nation's schools today, when African-American children are disproportionately excluded from instruction," said Jocelyn Samuels, a senior official in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Meridian hired a new school superintendent in 2011, after most of the data was collected showing a gap between black and white student discipline.
The new superintendent, Alvin Taylor, said in a phone interview that he welcomed the federal recommendations. "By the time we started working with the Department of Justice, we were already making changes," Taylor said.
School officials, for example, no longer call police officers for routine student misbehavior, waiting instead until a state law has been violated, Taylor said.
Other local officials have not been as receptive as the school system.
In October, after raising concerns with Mississippi state authorities and juvenile court judges, the Justice Department sued them for alleged civil rights violations.
City police acted as little more than a taxi service between schools and a juvenile detention center, where students were then denied access to lawyers, the suit said.
City and state officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss the suit. They note that police policy has changed and deny the other allegations.
The NAACP and other civil rights groups pushed for the new policies in Meridian, and are asking for similar changes in other school districts, including Chicago.
Meridian's school district is one of about 200 across the United States that are subject to desegregation orders under the 1964 law, said the Justice Department's Samuels.
The department regularly reviews compliance with those orders, looking for possible violations such as racial gaps in school discipline, she said.
"Across the country, students are being pulled off the path to success by harsh discipline policies that are excluding students from school for minor disciplinary infractions," Samuels said.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Todd Eastham)