Dept of Justice Sues State of Mississippi over "School to Prison" Pipeline

In this September photo, Ella Townsend of Meridian, Miss., said she worries that if her son, Lionel, 13, gets in trouble at school again, he could be sent to prison and do time with dangerous adults. (Photo: Maggie Lee / Juvenile Justice Inforation Exchange)

Dept of Justice Sues State of Mississippi over "School to Prison" Pipeline

Alleges African-American and disabled students systematically targeted, rights violated

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday sued the state of Mississippi, the city of Meridien, the county and several state agencies, alleging they "help[ed] to operate a school to prison pipeline" that routinely violated the rights of African-American children and children with disabilities in the city of Meridien.

"As a result," the court filing states, "children in Meridien have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law. The students most affected by this system are African-American children ann children with disabilities."

Specific allegations include handcuffing, arresting and "incarcerat(ing) for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity--or lack thereof-- of the alleged offense or probation violation; not providing "meaningful representation" to the juveniles during the justice process; making the children "regularly wait more than 48 hours" for a probable cause hearing; and not advising children of their Miranda rights before the children admit to formal charges.

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," the Associated Press reports.

In an August letter to the city, county, court judges, and state, the Department of Justice wrote, among other charges, that police are wrong to "automatically arrest children referred by schools instead of investigating and determining probable cause, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

The Department of Justice issued findings in August following a comprehensive investigation by the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Service and the Department of Justice that began in December 2011. They found "reasonable cause" that the defendants "were violating ... the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits a pattern or practice of deprivation of civil rights in the administration of juvenile justice.

The school district has about 6,000 students--86 percent of them African-American and 12 percent white. From 2006 to the first semester of the 2009-2010 school year, all the students referred to law enforcement or expelled were African-American and 96 percent of those suspended were African-American, the lawsuit said, according to the Associated Press.

In a September report by the Center for Public Integrity, Lionel Townsend, 13 at the time, admitted to fighting in middle school, but objected to the punishment: expulsion from school and, after fighting again, sentenced to probation and home confinement with an ankle monitor, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Lionel's mother, Ella Townsend, said that while some punishment was in order, "That was harsh punishment. I feel like they were out of order." When the monitor went off as Lionel went in the back yard, he "gouged" the speaker, and was charged $1,500 in damage.

His mother worried that if he made "another mistake," he would be sentenced to prison.

That month, Randle Jennings, now education chairman for the county NAACP, told the Center, said "We smelled smoke," but did not know what was going on. "We have a concern for our children, especially the next generation because we have seen two generations be destroyed ... [we] systematically need a plan so our children aren't shoved in that pipeline."

Gregory Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said it is disappointing that the local and state government agencies have not worked with the Department of Justice to resolve the violations.

Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general, told the Associated Press 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.

"The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law," Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in Thursday's statement.

According to the release, the Department of Justice has a longstanding desegregation case against the Meridian Public School District, and the two entities are "currently working cooperatively" to resolve that.

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