The U.S. Department of Justice has accused officials in Lauderdale County, Mississippi of running ‘a school-to-prison’ pipeline that jails juveniles for even minor school disciplinary problems.
A letter sent by the civil rights division on Friday charges that the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services have been violating the constitutional rights of children in Lauderdale County and the City of Meridian.
According to the letter, an investigation launched last December revealed that “the agencies have helped to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution. The department’s findings show that children in Lauderdale County have been routinely and repeatedly incarcerated for allegedly committing school disciplinary infractions and are punished disproportionately, without constitutionally required procedural safeguards. Children have also been arrested at school for offenses as minor as defiance.”
“Furthermore,” it continues, “children on probation are routinely arrested and incarcerated for allegedly violating their probation by committing minor school infractions, such as dress code violations, which result in suspensions. The department’s investigation showed that students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities.”
“The systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez explained in a statement.
Meridian, Mississippi is best known as the place where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, were murdered in 1964 in the so-called “Mississippi Burning” case. ABC News notes that about 62% of Meridian’s population is currently African-American.
In 2009 the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a class-action lawsuit against the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility, accusing it of keeping youths “crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the arbitrary use of Mace as a punishment for even the most minor infractions — such as ‘talking too much’ or failing to sit in the ‘back of their cells.’”
An agreement was reached at that time to reform the jail system and consider alternative methods of handling school disciplinary issues, but problems have continued in what an SPLC representative now calls “a broken system.”
The Justice Department letter cites a pattern of unconstitutional conduct that includes both failure to assess probable cause before arresting school children and failure to provide proper due process with regard to alleged probation violations.
A few weeks after the Justice Department investigation began last winter, Lauderdale County took steps to shut down its juvenile detention center and send youthful offenders instead to a neighboring county. That action was apparently considered inadequate, and officials are now being told they must enter into “meaningful negotiations” to end the violations within sixty days or face a federal lawsuit.
Photo of Crestwood School in Meridian, Miss. by Tom1959 via Flickr