JACKSON, MS – Alternative schools in Mississippi are not adequately helping struggling students to succeed academically, leaving too many of the state's children to drift toward dropout and failure, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union report released today.
The state's alternative school system, which has seen a 23 percent increase in its population in the past four years alone, overemphasizes punishment at the expense of remediation while failing to provide its students with a quality education, the report finds. Most of the students in the system are students of color or have special needs.
The report's findings are just the latest example of a disturbing national trend known as the "school to prison pipeline," wherein students are over-aggressively funneled out of mainstream public schools and pushed in the direction of the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
"The goal of the alternative school system in the state of Mississippi should be to help rescue students who are on the verge of falling through the cracks, and help those students to get on a track that will lead to their succeeding academically and later on in life," said Jamie Dycus, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program and the author of the report. "Unfortunately, because too many alternative schools focus primarily on simply punishing and isolating misbehaving students, downward cycles that some kids may find themselves on are only exacerbated."
The report reveals a number of troubling realities, including the fact that too many of the state's alternative schools take an overwhelmingly punitive approach. Alternative school students in DeSoto County, for example, are prohibited from making friends with each other and are subjected to daily, invasive body searches. Additionally, a vast majority of the state's alternative schools are not providing a quality education. Too many schools fail to provide state-mandated individual instructional plans for each student, for example, and students in several districts report never receiving homework, having shortened school days and being allowed to sleep while in class.
Entitled "Missing the Mark: Alternative Schools in the State of Mississippi," the report is the result of a year-long research effort by the ACLU and includes findings based on dozens of interviews with students, parents, educators and advocates, as well as analysis of thousands of pages of public records.
Mississippi's own dropout prevention plan describes alternative schools as places that provide "potential dropouts a variety of options that can lead to graduation." But the ACLU report makes clear that the state's alternative schools are not meeting that objective. In Madison County, 36 percent of students referred to an alternative school during the 2005-06 academic year dropped out of school that same year. In Picayune County, 12 percent of the students referred to an alternative school during the 2004-05 and 2006-07 school years were referred there at least twice. And students in Vicksburg, Picayune and DeSoto Counties reported being warehoused in alternative schools for as many as four years at a time.
"It is clear that our alternative school system is failing the most vulnerable of our state's children," said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Students who struggle with behavioral problems or learning disabilities deserve to be given the special attention they need to ensure they become well-educated, productive members of society. Instead, they are being increasingly marginalized and left behind."
The report also reveals that the state's alternative school system disproportionately impacts students of color. Statewide, the per capita rate of alternative school referral among African American students was twice that among white students between 2004-05 and 2007-08. During the 2007-08 academic year, the referral rate was four times higher for African American students in Vicksburg, six times higher in Jackson and seven times higher in Madison County.
A copy of the ACLU report, "Missing the Mark: Alternative Schools in the State of Mississippi" is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/crimjustice/juv/38800pub20090224.html
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/racialjustice
Additional information about the ACLU of Mississippi is available online at: http://www.msaclu.org