News

Continuing the Conversation After Arizona's Execution

July 25, 2014

By Alison Steiner, President, ACLU of Mississippi Board of Directors

"The capital punishment system is discriminatory and arbitrary and inherently violates the Constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, and looks forward to the day when the United States joins the majority of nations in abolishing it.” -ACLU Policy Statement on Capital Punishment

The ACLU has long been known and respected for its unstinting efforts at the elimination of capital punishment, and to securing systemic reform of the death penalty process so long as it is still with us.

Success of the abolition campaigns has been particularly impressive of late. In the last six years six states have decided that they, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, will “no longer tinker with the machinery of death,”i.e.will no longer try to systemically reform something that is not worth the effort of fixing.

Arguments for abolition have successfully invoked the undeniable racial discrimination in who is even prosecuted for death-eligible offenses. They have also relied upon disproportionate rate of DNA-based exonerations of people on death row and the unacceptably high risks of condemnation and execution of the innocent. Where they have worked, these arguments have propelled legislatures and executive branches to find the death penalty not worth its very considerable expense any more.

However, this has happened mostly in states where the death penalty was already falling in to disuse, or, as in Illinois, had already been stopped by executive moratoria and pardons. In most of these places, new death sentences were rare. In some, actual executions so uncommon that no one in the corrections systems had ever performed one.

These same arguments have not had as much traction in the hard core, particularly southern, death penalty states where death rows are large, new sentences, though rarer than before, are still regularly imposed, and executions are being conducted with disturbing frequency.

I think that this may be because the debate has mostly focused on the condemned people – is it unfair to them to be subjected to this racially disproportionate punishment, or face a not insignificant possibility that they are innocent yet condemned, when other, effective means of punishment are also available? Only indirectly does it talk about “us” and our distaste at collaborating in these injustices.

The event in Oklahoma, where the slow, agonizing death suffered by Clayton Lockett was, at least for a short time, witnessed by the world, have shifted that focus. Though it was Mr. Lockett who was being tortured to death, it was “us” – and by “us” I mean even the people conducting the execution – who were horrified by what we were witnessing. Even strong death penalty proponents had to admit that what happened to Clayton Lockett violated the Eighth Amendment.

Most recently, in Arizona, it took the state 1 hour and 57 minutes to execute Joseph Wood who gasped for air 660 times. Arizona rushed to execute him in secret and ignored the warnings of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio.

The conversation about capital punishment is once again questioning whether death penalty can, at least in practice, ever be anything other than a barbarity to which we must just say no, and that taints us as much as it harms the person we have condemned to suffer it.

The mostly conservative, mostly white politicians who, for now at least, still control legislatures and state-houses in the hard-core southern death penalty states, including Mississippi, have no reason to put themselves out politically for the people on death row, even the innocent ones. They can easily rationalize, ignore or deny the arguments that focus on the condemned people.

But like all human beings, most of these powerful men and women want to appear morally upright to the rest of the world. When the conversation focuses on their own part in maintaining a system that can allow someone to be strapped down, improperly sedated and then given just enough poison to cause a fatal heart attack half an hour later, we may be able to get their attention.

At the very least, we need to try.

President Obama Signs Executive Order Protecting LGBT People from Workplace Discrimination

July 21, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON – President Obama signed an executive order today to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from workplace discrimination during a ceremony at the White House.

The order bars businesses that contract with the federal government from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It also explicitly bans discrimination against federal employees based on their gender identity, building upon prior actions by the administration to extend basic fairness and explicit protections to transgender people.

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero:

"This is one of the most important actions ever taken by a president to eradicate LGBT discrimination from America's workplaces. By signing this order, President Obama is building on a bipartisan tradition, dating back over 70 years, of barring discrimination without exception when taxpayer dollars are involved. While there remains much work still to do to achieve the goal of full civil rights protections for LGBT people, we must take time to celebrate the landmarks along the way, and this is a huge win."

The executive order notably does not include a religious exemption that would have given religiously affiliated government contractors a special license to discriminate using taxpayer dollars against LGBT people. The ACLU recently withdrew its support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) over the bill’s religious exemption.

ACLU Withdraws Support for ENDA

July 08, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced that it is withdrawing its support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in a statement also signed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Transgender Law Center. The ACLU objects to a provision in the bill that would allow religiously affiliated employers to continue to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Federal legislation to protect LGBT people from workplace discrimination is way beyond overdue, but Congress has no place giving religiously affiliated employers a license to discriminate against LGBT workers," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "We can no longer support a bill that treats LGBT discrimination as different and somehow more legitimate than other forms of discrimination."

President Obama has announced his intention to sign an executive order that would ban discrimination against LGBT people employed by federal contractors. The ACLU opposes any inclusion of a discrimination exemption in this executive order.

The full statement announcing the withdrawal of support can be found here:https://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/aclu-statement-withdrawing-support-enda

Reflecting on Freedom Summer Youth Congress

July 02, 2014

By Jed Oppenheim, Advocacy Coordinator

They came from all over. By bus, train, airplane and car. From June 23-28, young people from all over Mississippi and our country came to Jackson, MS to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer. Part of this contingent was a large scale Freedom Summer Youth Congress (FSYC). Although participants commemorated the civil rights victories achieved partly because of Freedom Summer ’64, such as the Civil Rights Act and, later, the Voting Rights Act, the FSYC was a deliberate call to action by youth-led organizations. These organizations are on the forefront of the current movement defining what we need to do to keep pushing social justice and civil liberties forward.

In the last decade, we have seen our public education system attacked by private interests (much like they were just before and after Brown v. Board); we have seen SCOTUS back track on the pre-clearance required by the Voting Rights Act; at the state and federal levels we have seen attack after attack on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions (most recently, the June 30 SCOTUS decision regarding contraception); we are hearing of young people who have only ever known what life is like in America—being deported to countries they have never known due to decisions their parents made decades ago; we are seeing black and brown youth incarcerated more than ever because private corporations are looking for profit; and so much more. We will not resolve these issues without the engagement and leadership by and for our young people.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last year, you’ve seen the youth-led Dream Defenders sit-in over the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida; you have seen the DREAMers take to Capitol Hill and push the Obama Administration on immigration reform; and, right here in Mississippi, you have seen the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) organize for a union at the Nissan plant in Canton for workers’ rights. These stories often get missed in the mainstream because our elders and our media are quicker to judge young people as apathetic, uninvolved and selfish. By the end of last week’s Youth Congress, it was obvious that this paternalistic rational was debunked.

At the FSYC, the youth, who came to Tougaloo College in Jackson, strategized, collaborated and shared ideas that cut across the highly-silo’d way in which we normally operate in social justice work. Youth, who normally work on access to quality education, were working with youth on access to the ballot. Youth “DREAMers,” who came together as undocumented students, collaborated with other youth on breaking down the Prison Industrial Complex. Every issue is inter-connected and nowhere was that more clear than at the FSYC.

At FSYC, political power was a main topic of how to change perception, but also how to change the power structure. On the last day of the Youth Congress, I walked into a room where representatives from the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Freedom Side, The Young People’s Project, Advancement Project and many other groups were talking about a new political structure with more political voices. The discussion revolved around political power and how to obtain it. Amazingly, FSYC was filled with rooms of young people who have made a drastic impact on their communities, yet young people are constantly told to wait their turn. Moving forward, these young activists will be the voices of change because it is their turn.

In 2064, I hope we will not be talking about the same topics in 2014 nor the topics of 1964. Going forward from FSYC, we will use youth-driven people power to create new conversations and institutions. We will also continue the work to creatively break down systems that don’t work for black, brown, LGBT or DREAMer youth and create new one’s that actually serve the people. Most of the youth who came to FSYC are already doing the work. FSYC was an opportunity to build and expand on that foundation.

The ACLU of Mississippi applauds these courageous young people and were glad to participate in the FSYC. It is this youthful base that will forge into our future and finally allow our potential to be realized. It is this potential that will make our state and our nation great. A place where justice, fairness and equity are not just words on a paper (or in a blog) to be academized, but real acts of vision and love meant to exist in a great society.

Supreme Court Allows Employers to Discriminate Against Employees by Denying Contraception Coverage

June 30, 2014

Employers Allowed to Use Religious Beliefs to Refuse to Comply With Law Requiring Contraception Coverage

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of closely held corporations that sought an exemption to a federal law requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The owners of the plaintiff companies – Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based craft supply store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture company – cited religious objections to contraception as a reason not to comply with the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union, religious organizations, other civil rights and women’s health groups, business leaders, and members of Congress filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the companies’ owners cannot impose their personal religious beliefs on employees to withhold coverage for health services with which they disagree.

"This is a deeply troubling decision. For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that freedom does not include the right to impose beliefs on others. In its ruling today, the Court simply got it wrong."

More information about these cases can be found at:
aclu.org/reproductive-freedom/challenges-federal-contraceptive-coverage-rule

TANF Drug Testing Law Delayed Pending Public Hearing

June 26, 2014

MDHS approves ACLU, ACLU of MS and MS Center for Justice Request for Delay of House Bill 49 Implementation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 26, 2014

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841; sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss. – On June 24, Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) agreed to a request to delay the implementation of House Bill 49, a law that would require TANF applicants to complete a questionnaire and possibly be drug tested, until the end of a public hearing comment period. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS) and the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) made the request on June 20 citing the Mississippi Administrative Procedure Law that states an agency is not permitted to adopt the law “until the period for making written submissions and oral presentations has expired.”

“We have taken the position that all provisions within this new law must be well defined. If not, the economic harm and family sanctions would be exponential and the livelihood of TANF recipients would be left to chance,” said Charles Irvin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “The public has the right to engage in the functions of government in order to create a more perfect union and any opportunity to ease the burden on our most at risk citizens must be advanced.”

ACLU, ACLU of MS and MCJ identified legal and practical problems with the proposed rules and regulations related to the enactment of H.B. 49. The concern arises from the uncertainty of who will shoulder the costs of the screening as well as the treatment, the effect on households and children when individual TANF recipients fail to comply with the screening requirements and the privacy worries in the non-disclosure policy, among others.

Beth Orlansky, Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said H.B. 49 is a prime example of what happens when we put action before due diligence.

“The bill was rushed through to approval with little thought given to how it would affect the lives of those who fall under its authority,” Orlansky said. “This puts some of the most vulnerable children in our state at even greater risk. The state simply is not ready for the realities of this bill.”

The law was initially scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2014. It will be delayed due to a scheduled public hearing on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Hinds County Extension Office on 1735 Wilson Boulevard in Jackson. The hearing, which is open to the public, will include commentary from TANF recipients, legislators and representatives from multiple advocacy organizations.

Find more about the hearing.

Mississippi Has Little-Known For-Profit Prison for Immigrants

June 10, 2014

For Immediate Release
June 10, 2014

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Alexandra Ringe, ACLU National, 212.549.2582, media@aclu.org

Mississippi Has Little-Known For-Profit Prison for Immigrants; ACLU Investigation of Such Prisons Reveals Abuse, Inhumane Conditions

Report Shows Federal Bureau of Prisons Incentivizes Mistreatment, Shields Immigrant Prisons from Scrutiny

JACKSON, Miss – Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, MS, is one of the 13 little-known CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) prisons for immigrants in the United States. For the new report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas have investigated one CAR prison in Texas run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the same private prison company that operates Adams County Correctional Center. The report reveals inhumane conditions and egregious mistreatment of immigrants in prisons that enrich the for-profit prison industry at tremendous costs to taxpayers.

“Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation – ranking behind only Louisiana, according to the Department of Justice. Criminalizing immigration means making it a part of a system that is already overburdened by a mass incarceration crisis and plagued by for-profit companies turning our tax dollars into revenue” said Jennifer Riley-Collins. “The abuse and mistreatment of prisoners in the Adams County facility lead to a riot in 2012. The facility holds nearly 2,500 inmates most of them convicted for being in the country illegally after deportation. These immigration cases should be handled by civil immigration authorities not the criminal justice system.”

The culmination of a four-year investigation, the report shows how the federal Bureau of Prisons incentivizes private prison companies to keep CAR prisons overcrowded and understaffed. The companies provide scant medical care that is often administered incorrectly, if delivered at all. At the CCA operated prison in Concho County, Texas, the 1,550 prisoners are reportedly packed so tightly that their beds spill out into the hallways.

As Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained, “The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons come from the government’s decision to allow the suffering inside these for-profit prisons. For instance, 10% of the bed space in CAR prisons is reserved for extreme isolation—nearly double the rate in normal federal prisons. I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake—simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day.”

CAR prisons hold non-citizens who have been convicted of crimes in the U.S., mostly for immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).

Read the report: www.aclu.org/CARabuse

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In the Shadow of Freedom Summer

June 04, 2014

I was born in November 1965, a little over a year after my next oldest sister, Bettye. She was born in the middle of Freedom Summer. We grew up with our older siblings in Meridian, MS. 2505 ½ Fifth Street, within walking distance of our parents’ house, was the home of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office opened by Michael Schwerner. The COFO office was the headquarters of the Freedom Summer operation in Lauderdale County.

My oldest sibling graduated from a segregated school. Bettye started school the first year that Meridian Public Schools integrated. I went the second year. We were afforded what we thought was a decent educational experience – although I often wondered why my mother would show up at the school and just watch us after having worked all day as a maid. I remember her standing across the street and watching me on the playground sharing a swing with Brenda, my white class mate with whom I am still friends today. As a child, I was unaware of the fear she must have felt for our safety.

We grew up somewhat protected and therefore unfortunately unaware of the inequities faced by people of color. My parents were not rich by any means but they worked hard and ensured we valued education. My maternal grandmother, Mudear, had been President of the PTA and stood side by side with the white education officials for the ground breaking of Carver Middle School. I grew up admiring the picture of her holding the shovel while dressed to the nines in high heels and gloved hands. My brothers played football for Meridian High School, my sister and I both participated in extracurricular activities. It was not until my junior year when, as Class Vice President participating in the planning of the prom, the realities of the efforts of civil rights workers caught up with me. We realized that we were planning the first prom held at Meridian High since integration.

I then began to look around and see beyond the protections of my parents, older siblings, grandparents, church and neighbors who looked out for each of us. I had always known my parents to vote, or so I thought. I began to learn of the sacrifices paid by so many. I wondered as I read the accounts or reflected on overheard whispered conversations of grown folk talking (back then children were not allowed to stand around while grown folk talked) whether my parents were scared raising us under the shadow of the White Citizens Council and Sovereignty Commission and having to go to work every day. I often wondered why Mudear would insist on us walking a certain way – head held high, shoulders back, and eyes straight ahead. While our other grandmother, Queen, would snatch us off the side walk in Philadelphia, MS to allow a white person to pass by. What had they seen or experienced that made them have such different perspectives?

What I realize today as we approach the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer is that I am very thankful for the sacrifices made by heroes, the heralded and the unsung, who paved the way for us. The pavement they laid was too often mixed with blood and tears but it was a foundation on which we must continue to build.

I am grateful for the protections of my parents and the perspectives of my grandparents. I am grateful for the songs of the movement and the lessons of the struggles. They defined me and have brought me to this place and space in my life.

As we move into the summer, I encourage all young people to go back and capture the experiences of your parents and grandparents during Freedom Summer and how it defined them and you. If upon reflection, you do not see their courage reflected in the mirror of who you are today then know you are not saying thank you to those who fought and died for you. Make this summer the pivotal point in your own history where you decide the struggle for the civil rights and liberties of all Mississippians continues. Decide, like the young freedom riders of 1964, to make a difference in Mississippi, a state that continues to “[swelter] with the heat of injustice.”

The 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference is from June 25-29, 2014 and the Youth Congress is June 23-29, 2014.

What Happened to "Protect and Serve"?

May 09, 2014

By Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director and Charles B. Irvin, Legal Director

Last year, we co-sponsored the “Not Here, Never Again” event on the anniversary of the birth of Emmitt Till. We held the event in the wake of the court’s decision in George Zimmerman trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. We wanted the opportunity to educate our youth regarding how to respond when encountering the police. We trained these youth on their rights because we were determined that senseless deaths of our youth at the hands of persons acting under the color of law would not happen here.

We recognized that this was not the first time a young person’s life was stolen at the hands of law enforcement. We can easily recall Oscar Grant killed in Fruitvale Station; Henry Glover was shot to death and his body was burned by New Orleans police officers following Hurricane Katrina; Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by New York City police officers while unarmed. Mississippi has seen its own share of police misconduct which resulted in the death of thriving young men. In May 1970, two young men Phillip Gibbs and James Green were killed by the police in what is referred to as the Jackson State killings. In February 2006, Jessie Williams died of traumatic brain injury after he was beaten by a jailer in Harrison County. And on Monday, May 5, 2014, another young man, Justin Griffin, had his life taken at the hands of a law enforcement officer abusing his authority.

What happened to “protect and serve”? This motto is how we are expected to think about the officers who serve us. Did they forget? Increasingly, nationwide trends suggest that while most officers are protecting and serving, we are in a different space of “aggressive policing.” And in this space, more and more citizens are having their rights and freedoms violated. On a state by state basis, 22 states currently have a police misconduct rate above the US average of 977.98 per 100k. Mississippi is in the top five by geographic distribution. This is alarming when you consider the makeup of law enforcement around the state. Mississippi is comprised of a majority of small forces by county and municipality.

Over aggressive policing is akin to a micro-organism leading to unhealthy returns, such as the misuse of force. The Courts have also weighed in on the effects of over aggressive policing. “It is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly,” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 17 (1967). Despite this reality, instead of “not here, never again” we find ourselves saying “here we are yet again.”

The government’s failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct or excessive use of force has endowed officers with a sense of impunity. Mississippi’s government must intervene to ensure constitutional and human rights in Mississippi are protected. Government leaders need to prioritize better training, supervision, control, and monitoring of officers’ use of force to ensure all Mississippians are safe from unlawful police violence and free to exercise their First Amendment rights.

For more information on what to do if you're stopped by the police, visit our Know Your Rights page.

Category: Blogs

Where Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

May 08, 2014

By Carmel Ferrer

The olive branch is universally recognized as a token of peace. In Mississippi's DeSoto County however, Olive Branch's high school embodies zero tolerance at its worst.

Dontadrian Bruce, a student at Olive Branch High School, didn't know what to expect when he was summoned to the assistant principal's office on a Monday morning last February. He was surprised when Assistant Principal Todd Nichols pointed to a photo of the 15-year-old posing with his classmates in front of their biology project — a model of the DNA molecule built with Lego blocks — and said, "This is a gang sign. You're a gang banger."

In the photo, Dontadrian, intending to represent his number on the school's football team, was holding up his thumb, forefinger and middle finger. That innocent body language, according to Nichols, was sure-fire evidence of affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang that has a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles northwest of Olive Branch.

"I said, 'I'm not in a gang,' but he said, 'Yes, you are. You're a gang banger,'" Dontadrian recalls. Over his vigorous protestations, Dontadrian was suspended for gang activity.

His mother, Janet Hightower, was shocked when she got a call telling her to pick up her son. "He'd never been in trouble at school," she says. "He's a good, respectful young man."

Janet Hightower

Three days later, Dontadrian appeared before a disciplinary hearing, where a school-delegated "gang specialist" presented a photo of a Vice Lords member making a gesture similar to Dontadrian's — proof, he said, that Dontadrian had indeed flashed a gang sign.

Hightower questioned the specialist's assertion. She had Googled images of gang signs and found only one photo of a sign resembling the one Dontadrian had made. It was the exact same photo offered by the gang specialist as irrefutable proof of gang activity. "He claimed my son was in a gang, but the only evidence he had was that one photo."

She was further dismayed by the school administration's failure to conduct a thorough inquiry before suspending Dontadrian. "They didn't look at his academic and disciplinary record before suspending him," she says. They never asked his teachers, his coach or his friends if he was in a gang. They should have investigated first, had a conversation with the people who know him."

Despite little concrete evidence beyond conjecture, the disciplinary hearing officer suspended Dontadrian for the remaining five months of the school year and recommended expulsion.

"Because I'm Black"

According to the school administration, the action was taken because Olive Branch High School is guided by a "zero-tolerance" policy regarding gang activity. But Hightower and her son take a different view.

"When he talks about what happened and why, he says, 'They think I'm in a gang because I'm Black,'" she said.

Hightower is less certain that race was the predominant factor in Dontadrian's excessive punishment, but thinks it may have played a part. "I love Olive Branch, and I love the way they teach," she says. "But I'm not going to say there aren't any prejudiced people in the schools here."

She contends that the school and district administrators are predisposed to overreaction, and that the application of zero-tolerance policies is inconsistent at best. This was underscored by the school's decision to suspend Dontadrian's older brother, Dontavis, who in an act of solidarity posed with a group of classmates for a photo in which they all held up the incriminatory hand gesture. In all, 10 students posed for the photo, yet only Dontavis was suspended.

"They suspended him for three days, but not the other kids," she says. "They all made the same sign. Why single out Dontavis?"

Disproportionate Discipline

Olive Branch High School is just the latest DeSoto County school to expel a student for gang involvement based on little or no evidence. In 2009, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of a student at Southaven Middle School who was expelled after authorities illegally searched his cell phone and found photos that they claimed depicted "gang-related activity." In actuality, the photos depicted the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home.

Moreover, the district has a record of disproportionately disciplining students of color. In 2011 (the last year data was available), student enrollment was 60.4 percent white, 31.8 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic — yet Black and Hispanic students who were suspended totaled 58.8 percent.

Such disparities are hardly confined to DeSoto County, however. Nationally, according to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Civil Rights Data Collection, "Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students."

Harsh disciplinary policies have far-reaching impact on the educational development of the students affected, often resulting in lower school achievement and a spiral that singles out and criminalizes children who would otherwise be on a different path. This spiral, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, is delineated in the DOE guiding principles for improving school climate and discipline, issued in January 2014:

"Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system."

Determined to keep her son from entering a similar cycle of suspension, expulsion, or worse, Janet Hightower shrewdly enlisted local media in the effort to reverse the school's decision. After several area news reports on the incident aired, Dontadrian was permitted to return to school 21 days after his suspension.

"I don't think the school wanted the media attention," Hightower says. "They knew I wasn't going to back out or back down until their decision was overturned."

Dontadrian's return, however, came with a caveat: Hightower would have to agree to a one-year probation for her son. She refused.

"It would have been like saying my son was guilty," she explains. "Besides, it didn't make sense with their policy. Either he was guilty and should be expelled, or he was innocent and should be allowed back. Period."

Following a series of discussions between Hightower and Olive Branch's principal, the school finally backed down and removed the conditions from Dontadrian's return.

Hightower's advice to parents whose children are in a similar position: "If you think your child is innocent, fight back. Do whatever it takes."

"It Could Happen to Anyone's Child"

Dontadrian's suspension is behind him, but not its ramifications. The A and B student has struggled to catch up with his classmates, and brought home two F's in his third-quarter report card at the end of March.

"He's having a hard time," says his mother. "This is the first time he's ever had an F. It's really taking a toll on him trying to catch up on everything."

For Dontadrian, hard work, determination, and his family's support may well keep him out of the school-to-prison pipeline. But given the reality that children of color and children with disabilities are unduly affected by school disciplinary policies, how do other students avoid becoming statistics? The DOE guiding principles offer a solution:

"[s]chools should provide professional development and training to equip educators to […] respond to student misconduct fairly, equitably, and without regard to a student's personal characteristics (e.g., race, color, national origin, religion, disability, ethnicity, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or status as an English language learner, migrant, or homeless student)."

Meanwhile, Dontadrian's expulsion has turned Hightower into a vocal opponent of zero-tolerance policies, and school-to-prison pipeline issues in general. She currently is working with the ACLU's Mississippi affiliate to bring about a change in school policy that she hopes will prevent future incidents for all children in the DeSoto County School District.

"It happened to my son," she says. "If it doesn't get fixed, it could happen to anyone's child."

You can view this piece on the ACLU National Blog of Rights.