"School-to-prison pipeline" violates Meridian students' rights, government charges

Students in Meridian, Miss. have been handcuffed and jailed for minor offenses like dress code violations, a DOJ lawsuit claims (Photo: Klaus, Wikimedia).
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Brooks Hays

Local and state officials in Mississippi face a federal civil rights lawsuit for running what the Department of Justice (DOJ) is calling a "school-to-prison pipeline" in the city of Meridian that violated the constitutional rights of juveniles, especially African-American and disabled students.

Meridian students were "systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses," a DOJ press release claims. Anything from dress code violations to flatulence, from using vulgar language to going to the bathroom without permission, could land a student jail time, the suit alleges. It also charges that students were sometimes held for up to 48 hours before a probable cause hearing was held.

The suit was filed Wednesday, more than two months after a DOJ investigation released findings implicating the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services in the civil rights and constitutional violations. The investigation began in December 2011.

Mississippi officials immediately rejected the DOJ's findings, claiming in a letter to the agency that the allegations were based on only “a few” cases and “unsubstantiated” claims, as the Center for Public Integrity reported. "[The findings are] one-sided and reflect, in our opinion, the inexperience and unprofessionalism of your investigating representatives as to basic criminal procedure,” Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton and attorney for Lauderdale County J. Richard Barry wrote.

Though officials have yet to formally respond, County attorney Rick Barry told the Meridian Star they were in the midst of working things out with the DOJ. "We thought we had a conference call (scheduled) with all the parties to talk about the matter," Barry said, "but we got an email yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon telling us they were going to file it." Barry has promised to "vigorously defend" against the allegations.

On Wednesday, Roy Austin, a senior civil rights official at the Justice Department, told CNN that Meridian was not the only location in the country guilty of such procedures but that the Mississippi town was the only place where local authorities refused to cooperate with federal investigators.

Piggybacking on the DOJ suit, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed over 60 complaints against local leaders with the Mississippi Ethics Commission on Thursday, citing similar constitutional violations. But the NAACP claims their ethics complaints were not motivated by the recent DOJ lawsuit, according to local ABC station WTOK-TV. They are based on findings from their own investigation, originating seven years ago, the group says.