The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Meridian, Mississippi, officials for systematically incarcerating African American and disabled schoolchildren for days at a time for allegedly committing minor infractions like talking back to teachers or violating dress codes.
The suit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court, and the state of Mississippi was filed on October 24, 2012, more than two months after the Justice Department released findings of a joint investigation by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. (The Civil Rights Division also has a long-standing school desegregation case against the Meridian Public School District.)
It alleges that students in Meridian schools are handcuffed and arrested in school and end up incarcerated for “dress code infractions such as wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or for having shirts untucked; tardies; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission.”
Mississippi authorities are systematically violating the due process rights of children, says the Department, by incarcerating children for days without a probable cause hearing; obtaining admissions from children without advising them of their Miranda rights; and failing to provide meaningful representation by an attorney during the juvenile justice process.
The students most affected by this “school-to-prison pipeline” system are African-American children and children with disabilities. About 86% of the district’s students are African-American, but all of those referred to the court for violations were minorities, the suit said.
“The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, in a release. “It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children’s constitutional rights.”