Federal civil rights lawyers have filed a lawsuit against Meridian, Mississippi and other defendants in which they accuse city officials of operating a “school-to-prison pipeline” that jails students days at a time for minor infractions, without a probable cause hearing.
According to the American Bar Association Journal, the policy mainly affects black students and students with disabilities.
This "school to prison pipeline" claim says students are handcuffed and arrested in school and sent to a youth court and denied constitutional rights for minor infractions like talking back to teachers or violating dress codes. The lawsuit states they are then transported more than 80 miles to the Rankin County youth detention center, reports the Associated Press.
Many students end up on probation, without being provided proper legal representation and without determining whether there is probable cause when a school wants to press charges. For those placed on probation, a future school violation could be grounds for a suspension they must serve while incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.
According to the lawsuit, 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."
Defendants named in the suit include 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 says incarceration is used as a "medium for school discipline,” according to the AP.
CNN reports the lawsuit comes more than two months after the Justice Department informed local and state officials that they had 60 days to cooperate with an investigation or face legal action.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin noted additional unconstitutional actions on the part of the school district and court that included making children wait more than 48 hours for a hearing, and admit to formal charges without first being advised of their Miranda rights.
According to CNN, Austin said Meridian is not the only location in the country operating such a system, but is the only one to date where local authorities have not been fully cooperative with federal investigators.
In March, a survey by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found that black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, and more than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement are black or Hispanic.
Many experts have attributed the school-to-prison pipeline to zero-tolerance policies — a holdover from the war on drugs — that punish all major and minor rule infractions equally, bringing police disproportionately into high-minority schools.