Last Friday the U.S. Justice Department accused officials in Lauderdale County, Mississippi with running a "school-to-prison pipeline" by jailing students as a punishment for misbehavior in schools. The statement said that some children were incarcerated for offenses as minor as defiance, and that the punishments fell disproportionately on African-American students and students with special needs.
The Department's civil rights division says that county officials have 60 days to come to the table and negotiate with justice officials over how this practice can be stopped before the Justice Department files a federal lawsuit against Lauderdale and Mississippi state officials.
"The systematic disregard for children's basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust," Thomas E. Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general, said in a statement. "We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if necessary."
Two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, Frank Coleman and Veldore Young, were specifically mentioned in the letter outlining such allegations as having taken an active part in a conspiracy to violate students' civil rights.
The letter isn't the first time that the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility in Meridian has found itself a target of a legal action. In 2009 the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against the facility in federal court saying that inhabitants were being treated in a "shockingly inhumane" manner. The filing listed incidents of overcrowding, bad sanitation, and excessive use of Mace as punishment for offenses such as talking to much and failing to sit at the back of the cells.
In 2010, Lauderdale County officials and the center reached an agreement to reform the jail system and consider alternatives to sending youths to the detention center, said the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group.
"I think this is evidence of a broken system where the most vulnerable population of kids are not receiving their constitutionally guaranteed rights," Jody Owens II, managing attorney for the center's Mississippi office, told CNN.
The Justice Department letter also accuses the Meridian Police Department of automatic arrests of any students referred by the public school system — regardless of circumstances — and jailing them in the juvenile justice detention facilities. In particular, the letter referred to instances of police department leadership referring to themselves as a "taxi service" shuttling children between public schools and juvenile detention facilities without reviewing the details of their case.