The school-to-prison pipeline engulfing the Mississippi grade-school system has become so widespread that kids as young as 10 years old, by far the overriding majority of them minorities, are now being jailed for infractions as mundane as wearing the wrong colored socks or not wearing a belt as part of their school uniform.
In adhering to its clearly draconian policies, a Department of Justice lawsuit filed just last month also charges the Meridian city school system with systematically steering students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system where their rights to fairness and due process of the law translate as mere afterthoughts.
Presently any disciplinarian action taken by school officials against any student already on probation automatically results in police being called and the signaled-out individual being hauled away in handcuffs. Once incarcerated, students are held for days on end, all the while without the proper benefit of counsel or any probable cause hearing being held before a juvenile court authority.
“[D]efendants engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights,” the DOJ’s 37-page federal complaint charges. “Meridian’s years of systemic abuse punish youth so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience,” it further stipulates.
At its essence, the suit categorizes the state of Mississippi; city of Meridian; Lauderdale County and local Defendant Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young as a tightly-wound band of adversaries all equally culpable in their dereliction of duty. DOJ officials emphasize such behavior by insisting that during the course of their eight-month investigation city leaders deliberately sought to curtail their truth-seeking efforts by refusing to hand over requested documents and other court records including proof the city’s police department had, more or less, come to serve as “a de facto taxi service by shuttling students away from school and into youth jails.”
Many of DOJ’s findings are in lockstep with a 2010 study conducted by Indiana University education professor Russell Skiba concluding those who typically engage in such dastardly practices more often than not always seem to do so with a targeted victim in mind. Gleaming data composed over four decades and from roughly half of the nation’s 16,000 middle schools, researchers found black boys were three times more likely to be suspended—the tie that forever binds them to the judicial system— than white boys and black girls were four times as likely as white girls.
Among longtime critics of the Meridian system, all that simply serves as fuel to the burning question of what’s taken DOJ so long to react? As far back as 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center began investigating alleged patterns of such “horrific abuse” when attorneys learned two-thirds of all youths being held in state juvenile detention centers hailed from the Meridian school district. In addition, of the more than 6,000 students who now attend classes in Lauderdale County, all of those referred to the court system have been minorities.
“The administrators were the judge, jury and executioner,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney of SPLC’s juvenile justice initiative in Mississippi. With a population of roughly 40,000, at least 40 percent of which is white, Owens added of the last five-years “there was never once a white kid that was expelled or suspended for the same offense that kids of color were suspended for.”
“We talk about the school to prison pipeline and it’s often an abstract thing,” added fellow SPLC attorney Shakti Belway. “But here it is literally happening over ridiculous, minor charges.” Added Skiba: “I think what this suit says is whatever you do in a school district, why would it be that there would be racial and ethnic disparities? If we’re going to choose suspensions and expulsions and police presence, why are students of color overrepresented in that?”
As Exhibit A, Colorlines.com profiled the woeful tale of Cedrico Green. Now a high school senior, Green became indoctrinated following an eighth-grade scuffle with a classmate. From that point, infractions as mundane as talking back to a teacher and
arriving late for class landed him in juvenile detention as many as “maybe 30 times.”
There were times when he was held for as long as two weeks at a time and often suspensions designated for as long as 10-days stretched to 14 because weekend days didn’t count as time served. Ultimately, all the time away from his studies ended with Green being held back and required to repeat the eighth grade.
“It was mind-boggling,” Gloria Green told Colorlines of her son’s ordeal. “My son loved school and to be kicked out as much as he was, one year he just couldn’t catch up. I went over to the school and got make-up work, and he still failed two subjects and at that point I didn’t know which way what my child was going to go.”
In response to the lawsuit, city attorney Ronnie Walton contends the city has already revised many of the policies outlined by DOJ and that officers now only respond to city schools for incidents involving the commission of a felony, physical violence, weapons or drugs violations or by direct order of a Youth Court officer.
Walton also alleges that officers are no longer empowered to take kids into custody without personally witnessing the commission of their offense or without the direct order of a judge.
Not too surprisingly, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin took exception with the city’s claims. According to Austin, government officials only took action after their demands for cooperation fell on deaf ears.
“We had no choice but to file suit,” Austin said, noting that city officials were given 60 days to comply. Austin alluded to the Shelby County, Tennessee school system as an example of a district which took similar complaints to heart and where local officials were fully cooperative.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.