Mississippi – A shocking disregard for the rights of African-American and disabled kids

Mississippi State FlagLast Friday the U.S. Department of Justice issues a statement about extensive children’s rights violations in Meridian, Mississippi. The statement said that  Lauderdale County officials have have operated “a school-to-prison pipeline” violating the rights of juveniles in the area. Officials have had a policy of incarcerating students for alleged disciplinary problems, including minor infractions like defiance and flatulence.

Jason Ryan of ABC News gives us some more details on this latest shocking news from Mississippi:

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has released investigative findings determining that children in predominantly black Meridian, Miss. have had their constitutional rights violated by the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services in what civil rights investigators allege is a school to prison pipeline with even dress code violations resulting in incarceration.

The Justice Department has been investigating the agencies since December 2011 and found that the police department arrests children without probable cause, violating the children’s Fourth Amendment protections of unlawful search and seizure.

Some of you might remember our interview with Tania Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center in which we discussed the lawsuit they levied against the Meridian government over this exact same issue. Unfortunately, as goings-on in Polk County amply illustrate, Mississippi’s current issues with race and justice are entrenched and intolerable.

Lest you believe it is only the Fourth Amendment being abridged, the Department of Justice was only getting warmed up:

Also in the findings letter the Civil Rights Division alleges that ‘Lauderdale County and the Youth Court Judges violate the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to provide children procedural due process in the youth court. Lauderdale County, the Youth Court judges, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services violate the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to provide children procedural due process rights in the probationary process.’

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect against abuse of government authority in legal proceedings and fairness of due process rights,  respectively.

This is what happens when you make incarceration part of school discipline, an approach that is worthy of the Spanish Inquisition not a modern American city.

‘The system established by the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and DYS to incarcerate children for school suspensions ‘shocks the conscience,’ resulting in the incarceration of children for alleged ‘offenses’ such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect, The Justice Department findings letter noted.

Describing the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ the Justice Department findings letter noted of the alleged abuses by the police, “By policy and practice, [the Meridian Police Department] MPD automatically arrests all students referred to MPD by the District. 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 require children on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.’

It truly boggles the mind. If I were not from the Gulf Coast, I would be incredulous. Unfortunately I’ve spent time in Meridian and find it all too believable. Remember, in this instance it is the majority suffering discrimination. Meridian is 65% African-American,  after all. This is a disturbing reminder that the specter of Tennessee Williams’ “decadent South” still looms this far beneath the Mason_Dixon line.

I think the following sums things up neatly, and it is my hope that the treat of litigation is not a hollow one.

‘The systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.  “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.’

As a southerner (New Orleans native) I am used to being ashamed of a lot of what goes on down here, especially when it comes to issues like juvenile justice, race relations, and corruption. Not all of us are like that. As a matter of fact I am only one of many who fight to bring our states into the 21st Century.

Right now that fight is centered on Meridian, Mississippi.

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