The Worst “School-to-Prison” Pipeline: Was it in Mississippi?

As the U.S. Senate judiciary committee prepares to hear testimony on the phenomenon, attentionfalls again to a civil rights case brought against Meridian, Mississippi

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What do these school kids have in common? The teenage girl with a bladder disorder who left class without permission, ignoring a teacher and racing for a bathroom rather than wet herself; the boy who was rude to a school administrator; another who was tardy. They are children of color who, as a result of breaking minor school rules, were allegedly arrested and thrown into a juvenile detention facility in Meridian, Mississippi. It appears to be the most blatant case in a nationwide phenomenon that the U.S. Department of Justice, in a 37-page lawsuit, calls a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Following an eight-month investigation and a two-month warning period, the Justice Department in October filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the Mississippi Department of Youth Services (DYS) and local Youth Court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young for violating the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights of Meridian public school children.

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For six years or so, at least 77 children, some as young as 10 – all of them “children of color,” says Jody Owens, with the Southern Poverty Law Center–were routinely arrested at Meridian schools allegedly on the say-so of teachers or administrators, handcuffed and taken to jail where they were held for days on end without benefit of a hearing, a lawyer, or understanding their Miranda rights. Their parents or guardians weren’t notified of the arrests until the children were in lockdown in a facility the SPLC says was a hellhole of abuse and neglect.

During a speech in April, Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said students told him “of being escorted from school for crying while being paddled” and “of serving time in in-school suspension for wearing the wrong color socks.” In the case of disabled students, some were arrested for behavior symptomatic of the very illnesses that made them require special education plans. In most of these incidents, Owens says the children “didn’t even know who accused them.”

Meridian’s students – including special education kids – were, according to investigators, expelled and suspended for longer than 10 days “at a rate almost seven times the rate for Mississippi schools generally.”

The Justice Department also alleges that things were worse for children on probation: a school suspension automatically violated the terms of probation and the child was sent to juvenile jail. “The system established by the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County and DYS to incarcerate children for school suspensions ‘shocks the conscience,’” said a letter the Justice Department wrote to the state, county and city in August regarding the investigation. What’s more, apparently without having the consequences explained to them, the children were placed under probation contracts granting their judicial overseers extraordinary powers, including the ability to revoke probation for minor school infractions.

“Defendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby,following referral of students by the District, MPD [the Meridian Police Department], the Youth Court, and probation services (DYS), arrest, adjudicate, and incarcerate children for school infractions without exercising appropriate discretion and without regard for their obligations under the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit claims. “MPD automatically arrests all students referred to MPD by the District, which employs a system of severe and arbitrary discipline that disproportionately impacts black children and children with disabilities. The children arrested by MPD are then sent to the County juvenile justice system, where existing due process protections are illusory and inadequate.”

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All deny the charges. Henry Palmer, Coleman and Young’s lawyer, wrote in his response to the lawsuit that his clients “categorically deny any systemic violation of any child’s constitutional rights” and are not responsible for school discipline policies.

Policies that funnel misbehaving children directly from school to juvenile detention and even adult courts are cropping up all over the country, a result, says the American Civil Liberties Union, of unforgiving and often irrational zero-tolerance laws that criminalize infractions of school rules and normal childhood behavior, of the wide-spread practice of turning what used to be routine school discipline over to police and school safety officers, and of high-stakes standardized testing programs like the No Child Left Behind Act, which encourage educators to raise their schools’ scores by getting rid of low-achieving students.

The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, on Dec. 12. In recent years such practices have come to light in California, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and New York. The programs primarily affect children of color and the disabled, particularly those who are already disadvantaged. In California, black children are twice as likely as whites to receive out of school suspensions and while nationwide disabled children account for just 13% of the overall student population, they represent 70% of students subjected to physical restraint. “Kids are being handcuffed and shoved into closets,” says Deborah Vagins with the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s happening all over the country.”

Vagins hopes the congressional hearings will result in support for federal legislation ending corporal punishment in schools, guidelines limiting how and when students can be restrained and secluded, and the use of federal school funds to create “positive reinforcement” school programs.

In Meridian, the days of what the Justice Department said amounted to local police operating a taxi service between schools and juvenile detention are apparently over. Just days after being hired in July 2011, Meridian schools superintendent Alvin Taylor ordered the schools to stop calling police unless a child commits a felony. Further, Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton, while maintaining the Justice Department’s findings are incorrect, wrote in his response to the lawsuit that the police department now “only responds to calls from the Meridian Public School District during the normal school day for incidents involving the commission of a felony, physical violence, illegal drugs, or based upon an order from a Youth Court Judge or Judge of a court of other competent jurisdiction. No officer may sign an affidavit dealing with a juvenile or transport a juvenile from the school grounds unless the offense for which that officer is charging that individual took place in view of the officer.”

That doesn’t help the children who were persecuted and at this point, no one really knows how many there were, Owens says. Mississippi and the Lauderdale County Youth Court, citing state confidentiality laws have refused the Justice Department’s repeated request for access to juvenile court records.

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