The US Department of Justice is accusing officials in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, of operating what was in effect a “school-to-prison pipeline” in which students — a disproportionate number of whom were African-American and/or had disabilities — were arrested and incarcerated for alleged infractions of school discipline that, in some cases, were as “minor as defiance.” The students indeed became “entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the US Constitution.”
A letter sent by the DOJ’s civil rights division on Friday charges the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department and the Missisippi Division of Youth Services (DYS) with violating the constitutional rights of children in Lauderdale County and the City of Meridian. The DOJ is seeking “meaningful negotiations” in 60 days to end the violations or, as CNN notes, it will file a lawsuit against state, county and local officials in Meridian.
Meridian, as Raw Story reminds us, is the very place where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were murdered in 1964. 62 percent of Meridian’s population is African-American.
This is not the first time that Lauderdale County’s agencies have been the target of a lawsuit on similar charges. In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility in Meridian. Both children and teens were subjected to “shockingly inhumane” treatment that included packing them ”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,’” according to a statement from the SPLC.
In 2010, the SPLC said that it had reached an agreement with Lauderdale County officials about alternatives to sending children and teens to the detention center and to reform the corrections system. But on Friday, the DOJ accused the Meridian police and school and county officials of acting in a “pattern of unconstitutional conduct.” Students with certain disciplinary violations were referred by school officials to the police who “automatically” arrested them, after which they were sent to Lauderdale County’s juvenile justice system “where existing due process protections are illusory and inadequate” says the DOJ’s letter.
Indeed, as the DOJ’s letter also notes, “the Youth Court places children on probation, and the terms of the probation set by the Youth Court and DYS require children on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.” Even after leaving the detention center, children on probation were still subject to being “routinely arrested and incarcerated for allegedly violating their probation by committing minor school infractions, such as dress code violations, which result in suspensions.”
Lauderdale County had made some attempts to change a corrupt system operating in violation of the constitutional rights of minors. Raw Story says that, before the DOJ’s investigation began last December, the county began the process of shutting down its youth detention enter and sending youthful offenders to facilities in other counties but “that action was considered inadequate.”‘
Lauderdale County’s schools, youth services agencies and police have been operating — seemingly in concert — to funnel children with disciplinary violations straight into Mississippi’s criminal justice system. It is almost as if the schools have been “educating” children for a life of punishment, in lawcourts and behind bars.
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