Mississippi state regulators are guilty of operating “a school-to-prisons pipeline” placing many of the African-American students now composing more than 60 percent of the county of Lauderdale’s student population in grave and disproportionate danger of being jailed. Trite offenses include dress code violations, use of profanity and other minor acts of defiance, alleges an ongoing Department of Justice complaint.
In a scathing, multiple-page letter penned on the heels of an eight-month investigation, DOJ officials from the Civil Rights Division pointedly denounced a system they categorized as largely predicated on a handshake alliance between top state officials, among them the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, who have all but conspired to “violate the constitutional rights of black students throughout the predominantly black community of Meridian.”
Students with disabilities were also largely found to be the objects of the county’s less than endearing overtures, with investigators likewise deeming their fourth (search and seizure), fifth (no person shall be held to answer for a crime without presentment of indictment) and fourteenth (right to due process) amendment assurances to have been grossly violated.
“I think this is evidence of a broken system where the most vulnerable population of kids are not receiving their constitutionally guaranteed rights,” Jody Owens 11, managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, told CNN. “This deserves our undivided attention.”
This hardly marks the first time SPLC leaders have held, not to mention shared, such seemingly clairvoyant views. In 2009, the longtime, not-for-profit, civil rights organization hit the Lauderdale Juvenile Detention Facility with a federal, class-action suit charging children and teens— presumably at least some of them students only exposed to the criminal justice system deriving from some of the aforementioned, clearly trivial reasons given for their school-related arrests— were subjected to “shockingly inhumane treatment” during their subsequent detainment or incarceration.
Among the alleged acts of mistreatment cited were instances of victims being “crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the threat of Mace as punishment for such minor infractions as “talking too much” or “not sitting in the back of their cells.”
In their latest affidavit, DOJ officials noted as a rule Meridian police now automatically arrest all students referred to them by the school system, ultimately processing them into the county juvenile justice system. Such a system stands in total disregard to a 2010 agreement brokered between SPLC brass and city officials to begin reforming the system to the point of implementing alternatives to automatically banishing all students to confines and conditions critics insist are devoid of “due process protections, illusory and inadequate.”
DOJ investigators also point out that once a student is arrested, the youth court system places them on probation—at times even before they’ve received legal counsel— potentially placing those who might already be on probation in jeopardy of violating any such legal tender based on something as fundamental as an early school suspension.
"The systematic disregard for children's basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust," Thomas E. Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general, said in a statement. "We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if necessary."
In directly naming Lauderdale County Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young as potential plaintiffs in any forthcoming class action, government officials now maintain they will seek to enter into "meaningful negotiations" with Mississippi officials allowing them up to 60 days to end all constitutional violations or else face formal federal proceedings.
According to the Huffington Post, though both men have previously vowed to cooperate, over the course of DOJ’s investigation both “consistently denied officials access to information about the policies and practices of their court” and directed other Meridian city officials to deny the agency access to any files related to under-aged defendants.
Shockingly enough, however, the school-to-prison pipeline agenda hardly rates as some sort of new approach in the Deep South. The American Civil Liberties Union has advocated long and hard in defending against such a system, including filing suit in 2008 related to a case in Atlanta where it was alleged students enrolled in a local alternative school there were being denied all rights to an adequate public education as well as routinely subjected to a series of unreasonable searches.
Less than a year later, the two sides agreed to a broad array of improvements at the school with ACLU officials championing their commitment to “challenging the school to prison pipeline and doing away with a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
One can now only hope for such progressive results to prevail in neighboring Mississippi.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.