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The Shocking Details of a Mississippi School-to-Prison Pipeline

Wearing the wrong color socks, talking back and being late landed young Cedrico Green in jail. The Justice Department says there are many more students like him.
 
 
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Reprinted with permission of Colorlines.com. For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly Colorlines Direct.

Cedrico Green can’t exactly remember how many times he went back and forth to juvenile. When asked to venture a guess he says, “Maybe 30.” He was put on probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight when he was in eighth grade. Thereafter, any of Green’s school-based infractions, from being a few minutes late for class to breaking the school dress code by wearing the wrong color socks, counted as violations of his probation and led to his immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center.

But Green wasn’t alone. A bracing Department of Justice lawsuit filed last month against Meridian, Miss., where Green lives and is set to graduate from high school this coming year, argues that the city’s juvenile justice system has operated a school to prison pipeline that shoves students out of school and into the criminal justice system, and violates young people’s due process rights along the way.

In Meridian, when schools want to discipline children, they do much more than just send them to the principal’s office. They call the police, who show up to arrest children who are as young as 10 years old. Arrests, the Department of Justice says, happen automatically, regardless of whether the police officer knows exactly what kind of offense the child has committed or whether that offense is even worthy of an arrest. The police department’s policy is to arrest all children referred to the agency.

Once those children are in the juvenile justice system, they are denied basic constitutional rights. They are handcuffed and incarcerated for days without any hearing and subsequently warehoused without understanding their alleged probation violations.

“[D]efendants engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights,” the DOJ’s 37-page complaint reads. Meridian’s years of systemic abuse punish youth “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience,” the complaint reads.

The federal lawsuit casts a wide net in indicting the systems that worked to deny Meridian children their constitutional rights. It names as defendants the state of Mississippi; the city of Meridian; Lauderdale County, which runs the Lauderdale County Youth Court; and the local Defendant Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young for violating Meridian students’ rights up and down the chain.

The DOJ’s complaint also charges that in the course of its eight-month investigation the city blocked the inquiry by refusing to hand over youth court records. Attorneys for city officials deny that claim, and say they are bound by law to protect the confidentiality of youth who’ve been through the system and so cannot share their records with the federal government.

‘Judge, Jury and Executioner’

The DOJ’s lawsuit, despite its bombshell revelations for the rest of the country, has been a long time coming. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP have been concerned about Meridian for years.

The SPLC’s inquiry into Meridian began in 2008, when attorneys started hearing reports of “horrific abuse” of youth housed in juvenile detention centers, said Jody Owens, managing attorney of the SPLC’s juvenile justice initiative in Mississippi. Advocates learned that 67 percent of youth in detention centers arrived there from the Meridian school system, Owens said. In between school and detention, students were denied access to counsel and due process, and many were never made aware of what they were even being arrested for. “The administrators were the judge, jury and executioner,” Owens said.