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A ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

GULFPORT, Miss. (CN) - Meridian, Miss. needlessly arrests, handcuffs and jails its schoolchildren in a "school-to prison pipeline" that disproportionately affects black families, the United States says in a federal complaint against the city, county, state and two judges.

The United States filed a constitutional complaint against Meridian, Lauderdale County, Your Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young, Mississippi, its Department of Human Services and its Division of Youth Services.

The government claims the county, and the defendant judges, hampered the Department of Justice's investigation of the constitutional violations by "direct(ing) Meridian to deny DOJ access to law enforcement files concerning children referred from the district to MPD."

"Collectively, defendants engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, an in violation of these children's constitutional rights," the 37-page complaint begins.

The federal government claims Meridian arrests children in school without probably cause; Lauderdale county and the defendant judges repeatedly jail child without "essentials of fairness and due process"; the county and state repeatedly jail children "for alleged probation violations"; and "collectively engage in a pattern or practice of imposing disproportionate and severe consequences, including incarceration, for technical probation violations such as school suspensions, without any due process whatsoever."

"Defendants' concerted actions punish children in Meridian, Mississippi so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience, and deprive these children of education opportunities on an ongoing basis.

"The repercussions of the constitutional violations perpetrated by defendants are severe and far-reaching. Children and regularly and repeatedly handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity - or lack thereof - of the alleged offense or probation violation."

Meridian, pop. 40,000, is more than 61 percent African-American, according to city-data.com. Its median household income of $28,660 is 22 percent below the statewide median of $36,646.

Uncle Sam says the Meridian Public School District reports students' misbehavior to police, ranging "from offenses typically understood to be 'criminal,' including possession of drugs or weapons, to conduct that would traditionally be considered to constitute only a school disciplinary infraction, including disrespect, refusal to follow the directions of a teacher, and profanity."

Regardless of the offense, "MPD automatically arrests all students referred to MPD by the district, which employs a system of severe and arbitrary discipline that disproportionately impacts black children and children with disabilities," the complaint states.

"The children arrested by MPD are then sent to the county juvenile justice system, where existing due process protections are illusory and inadequate. The Youth Court places children on probation, and the terms of the probation set by the Youth Court and DYS required children once on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.

"Once defendants - collectively, the administrators of the juvenile justice system - place a child from the district in this cycle, he or she is repeatedly subjected to unconstitutional government action and potential incarceration without procedural safeguards."

The complaint describes the process by which students are arrested and removed from school: "After receiving a call for service to a district school, MPD then dispatches an officer to the school to arrest the child.

"When the MPD officer arrives at school, the officer generally meets the student in or near the principal's office. If the student has not already been sent to the principal's office, the school security officer will usually escort the student to the MPD officer. The school administrator or security officer then informs the MPD officer that the student should be arrested.

"MPD's practice is to arrest all students referred by the district, regardless of whether information is conveyed regarding the allegation, and the sufficiency of the allegation."

Once the students are arrested and taken into juvenile detention, their due process rights are violated because "detention hearings are held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and now purportedly Mondays, regardless of when a child is first incarcerated. For example, if a child is incarcerated on a charge on a Thursday afternoon, the child will not have a hearing in front of a Youth Court judge until the next Monday or Tuesday, at the earliest."

Additionally, "Lauderdale County has held detention hearings without the presence of the child and/or guardian of the child whose liberty is at stake.

"Moreover, county staff at the Juvenile Center sometimes advise guardians who call the Juvenile Center that they should not attend the hearing."

The government says: "The defendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby, following referral of students by the district, MPD, the Youth Court, and probation services (DYS), arrest, adjudicate, and incarcerate children for school infractions without exercising appropriate discretion and without regard for their obligations under the United States Constitution."

The Department of Justice began investigating Lauderdale County in December 2011, but the county "has consistently denied DOJ access to information about the policies and practices of the Youth Court, including the opportunity to observe the Youth Court and Juvenile Center staff, and review Youth Court files," the complaint states.

"Additionally, Lauderdale County and Judges Coleman and Young have directed Meridian to deny DOJ access to law enforcement files concerning children referred from the district to MPD."

Continued pressure from the Department of Justice caused the defendants to modify their behavior slightly, but "these policies and forms continue to leave youth vulnerable to facing incarceration for alleged probation violations associated with the failure to follow school rules, suspension or expulsion, regardless of the underlying circumstances," the complaint states.

The government seeks an injunction forcing the defendants to stop the unlawful arrests and incarcerations.

Alfred B. Jernigan Jr., Assistant U.S. Attorney, is lead attorney for the government.

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