JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Authorities in east Mississippi run a "school-to-prison pipeline" that locks up students for infractions like flatulence or wearing the wrong color socks. The U.S. Justice Department said the policy mainly affects black and disabled children in a federal lawsuit on Wednesday.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson said officials in the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County have policies that allow students to be arrested and shipped 80 miles to a juvenile detention center without probable cause or legal representation. The defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and DHS's Division of Youth Services.
The Meridian Public School District is not named as a defendant, but the lawsuit said incarceration is used as a "medium for school discipline."
"For example, some Behavior Intervention Plans prepared by the district for students with disabilities have listed 'Juvenile Detention Center' as a consequence for student misbehavior," the lawsuit said.
A DHS spokeswoman said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. The mayor of Meridian, the governor's office and the youth court judges didn't immediately respond to messages. The police chief referred questions to a city attorney, who didn't immediately return a call.
The lawsuit claims Meridian police routinely arrest students without determining whether there is probable cause when a school wants to press charges, and the students are routinely jailed. The lawsuit said the students are sent more than 80 miles to the Rankin County youth detention center because the one in Lauderdale County closed earlier this year "because of longstanding legal battles over the conditions of confinement."
Once arrested, the students end up on probation, sometimes without proper legal representation, according to the lawsuit. If the students are on probation, future school violations could be considered a violation that requires them to serve the suspension incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.
That means students can be incarcerated for "dress code infractions such as wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or for having shirts untucked; tardies; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission."