JACKSON (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, a policy that mainly affects black and disabled children, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday in a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson says 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 says 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 says 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."
Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general, said Wednesday that other areas around the country have "school-to-prison pipelines," but this is the first time the civil rights division has filed a lawsuit based on these allegations. He said Shelby County, Tenn., is another example of a problematic area, but he said officials there are working with the Justice Department to fix the problems.
Mississippi officials have not been cooperative, he said.
"What we are trying to do is fix the problem and not affix blame. Unfortunately the defendants didn't feel the same way," Austin said.
The Justice Department said Lauderdale County Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore "Vel" Young denied the agency access to court hearings and information and directed the city of Meridian to withhold files concerning children. The Justice Department's investigation began in December 2011.
The school district has about 6,000 students, with 86 percent being black and 12 percent being white. From 2006 to the first semester of the 2009-2010 school year, all the students referred to law enforcement or expelled were black and 96 percent of those suspended were black, the lawsuit said.
In a letter to Mississippi officials in August, the Justice Department threatened to sue if the problems continued. The lawsuit said officials denied the problems existed or failed to properly address them.