MERIDIAN, Miss. — Lionel Townsend will turn 14 in September. And a few months after that he will be able to return to school, ending a year of exile.
Lionel admits he got into fights multiple times at Magnolia Middle School. When he was charged with vandalizing a school bus security camera, he was booted from school. He fought again in a community day program. The county Youth Court eventually put him on probation and ordered him to stay at home with an ankle monitor.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is alleging the juvenile justice system here is so faulty that it amounts to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“If you do wrong, you got to pay,” insisted Lionel’s mother, Ella Townsend, speaking in the living room of the home she shares with her mother, Lionel and four of the boy’s siblings. Lionel listens quietly, a skinny boy, who grins when attention is turned to him, or he’s teased about the sparkly blue earring studded in his ear. “But “that was harsh punishment,” she said, “I feel like they were sort of out of order.”
Townsend says her son’s ankle monitor was so sensitive it went off if he went in the back yard. The young man is rid of it now, but not before he gouged off the speaker, causing what Townsend said the court assessed as $1,500 in damage.
She worries if Lionel makes another mistake, he will end up in prison with adults, where he will learn little more than how to be a criminal.
The Justice Department says it has probable cause to believe the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County routinely and repeatedly incarcerate children for school disciplinary infractions, as outlined in an Aug. 10 open letter that was issued at the conclusion of an eight-month investigation. The department’s letter is addressed to the city and county, the county's two Youth Court judges, as well as the state Division of Youth Services, but not the Meridian school system.