Justice Department alleges 'school to prison pipeline' in Mississippi

Lawsuit says rights of children are 'repeatedly and routinely violated'

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Arguing that African-American and disabled students’ rights are being systematically violated, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an unusual lawsuit Wednesday against the state of Mississippi, Lauderdale County and the city of Meridian.

The suit alleges that the state, county and city “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated,” said a Department of Justice press release.  “As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.”

The department alleges that some disabled students’ behavior intervention plans prescribe “juvenile detention center” to deal with school discipline problems,  and that students have been handcuffed and arrested at school and placed in detention for days at a time – 80 miles away -- without sufficient legal representation or a timely hearing.

The department also alleges that students who have been arrested can end up incarcerated for parole violations involving minor school infractions, including  wearing the wrong color socks, having a shirt untucked, using vulgar language or being tardy.

The Center for Public Integrity published a report in September about the Justice Department’s allegations of a pattern of overly harsh punishment of African-American and disabled students in Meridian. In August, the department had issued a letter of “findings” to state and local officials in Meridian, detailing the charges and requesting cooperation to correct alleged violations.

According to the Associated Press, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, Jr., said that the lawsuit represents the first attempt by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to stop an alleged “school-to-prison pipeline” in a local jurisdiction through litigation.  A department investigation into similar allegations of violations in Shelby County, Tenn., has led to corrective action.

“It is disappointing that the local and state government agencies involved in the administration of juvenile justice in Lauderdale County have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations,” said Gregory Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, in a Justice press release Wednesday.

The Associated Press reported that local and state officials either declined comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.  But last month, the Center reported that representatives of the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County rejected the Justice Department’s initial findings, dismissing the allegations as based only on “a few” cases and  “unsubstantiated” claims.