OP-ED: Shameful Treatment of Children in Meridian, Miss. Is Not the Only Example of School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Tamar Birckhead newIn recent years, juvenile justice advocates, lawyers, policy-makers, and reformers have increasingly sought to raise awareness of the American phenomenon of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The term refers generally to the process in which substandard public schools fail to provide adequate support and resources for at-risk children and their families, resulting in high drop-out rates and ultimately leading to court-involvement, detention and incarceration.

More specifically, the term refers to the pattern in which students who have committed school-based wrongdoing — whether by pushing another child in the hallway, taking a pencil from a teacher’s desk, or disrupting class — are summarily arrested, charged with violating a criminal offense, and prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court. After a judge finds them delinquent, youth are then placed on probation and court-ordered to comply with a long series of conditions, typically including that they not be suspended (or not be suspended again) from school. In many jurisdictions when a juvenile on probation is suspended — even for a minor infraction at school — the consequences of the violation may include incarceration in a detention center.

schoolppipe_seriesResearch has shown that youth who are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline are likely to be those who are already the most vulnerable: low-income students, children of color, English language learners, youth in foster care, students with disabilities (whether physical, psychological, or developmental), and homeless children. Often such students fall into more than one of these categories.

It is against this background that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a stunning letter last week summarizing the findings of a comprehensive investigation into the unconstitutional treatment of children in Meridian, Miss. In its press release, the DOJ asserts that the local police, the county juvenile court, and the state agency in charge of the juvenile detention center in Meridian, “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution.”

The letter, authored by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, details a systemic process that begins when the Meridian Police Department automatically arrests all students who are referred to the police by the Meridian Public School District for disciplinary infractions, including dress code violations.

The police “do not assess the facts or circumstances of the alleged charge, or whether the alleged conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense.” Instead, they serve as a “taxi service” from the schools to the juvenile detention center, “routinely” handcuffing and arresting students without custody orders or an independent determination of probable cause. After the student reaches the detention center, an intake officer issues a “temporary” custody order, and then a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge holds a hearing and issues a detention order — again without a probable cause finding. These proceedings also violate federal law requiring that children taken into custody receive detention hearings within 48 hours, as Meridian’s juvenile court hearings — including detention hearings — are held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As for the juvenile’s right to counsel, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 with In re Gault, the DOJ found that children in Meridian are “not always” appointed an attorney for detention or adjudication hearings, and that the public defender who is appointed “does not provide children and guardians with meaningful or effective representation.” Following adjudication, the juvenile court places children on probation, requiring them to serve any school suspensions for alleged disciplinary infractions while incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.  In short, the existing due process protections provided by Meridian’s juvenile justice system are both “illusory and inadequate.”

As is typical of districts impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline, the Meridian students most severely affected by these practices are African-American children and children with disabilities. The DOJ letter specifies that while Meridian’s general population is approximately 62 percent black and 36 percent white, student enrollment in the public schools is 86 percent black and 12 percent white. Approximately 13 percent of Meridian’s students are identified as having disabilities, and its students are suspended or expelled at a rate almost seven times the rate for Mississippi schools statewide.

During the course of their eight-month investigation, the Civil Rights Division unsuccessfully sought access to Meridian juvenile court records and an opportunity to speak with its personnel. Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young and county officials refused to allow DOJ to observe court proceedings, interview staff, or review files. They also directed the city to deny DOJ access to the law enforcement records of the children referred by the schools to the Meridian Police Department. Although DOJ seeks “meaningful negotiations” with the involved agencies and believes that a “collaborative approach” to resolving the violations “would be productive,” a federal lawsuit against state, county and local officials will be filed if “expeditious” progress is not made.

This is not the first time that Meridian’s mistreatment of children and teens has drawn the attention of authorities. Several years ago, the town’s juvenile detention center was the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A settlement was reached in 2010 that ended the detention center’s policy of confining youth in unsanitary cells for 23 hours each day, punishing them with Mace or pepper spray, and locking them in a mechanical “restraint chair.”

Lauderdale County officials agreed to provide meaningful rehabilitative, educational, and recreational programs as well as upgraded mental health screening and adequate medical treatment for those held at the center. They also agreed to consider community-based alternatives to detention. It is unclear whether these reforms were implemented.

In regard to the current allegations against those entrusted to care for and serve the children of Meridian, the media will likely portray them as an anomaly—a situation that is limited to the backwaters of Mississippi and not at all illustrative of the general quality of juvenile justice in the United States. From my perspective, however, while the evidence is indeed shocking, the reality is that the school-to-prison pipeline exists in many—too many—of our nation’s struggling school districts. More stunning, perhaps, is the federal government’s explicit acknowledgement that the phenomenon exists, that the pattern of conduct is unconstitutional, and that it must end.

The Meridian case also differs from incidents such as the “kids for cash” scandal  uncovered several years ago in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which juvenile court judges were motivated by financial gain to illegally sentence thousands of children to private juvenile detention centers in a racketeering scheme that netted them millions of dollars. In contrast, the agency personnel and officials in Meridian are unfairly treating children out of “systemic disregard” for their welfare. Meridian police “may subjectively believe that they are acting appropriately” in following established policy, but they have diverted their attention from the larger — and graver — picture. In other words, these violations stem from detachment and impassivity, from a failure to consider each child as an individual. The teachers, administrators, police and judges of Meridian view these young people as all the same, indistinguishable from one another, defined by their alleged infractions, and assumed to be guilty and deserving of incarceration. As a result, thousands of children — mostly African-American, many of whom are disabled — have unnecessarily been arrested, handcuffed, adjudicated as juvenile delinquents, and incarcerated. They have been stigmatized by an insidious “cycle of incarceration.” They have been socialized to believe that they are not worth any more than the next name on the juvenile court docket.

Yes, the “serious and longstanding” violations uncovered in Mississippi are unacceptable and should be condemned. But they are not limited to a single town in the South. The school-to-prison pipeline exists in cities, suburbs and towns all across the United States. It is not only there. It is here.

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: Shameful Treatment of Children in Meridian, Miss. Is Not the Only Example of School-to-Prison Pipeline

  1. “The result is not a a safer school system that has responsibly removed its most violent students…”

    You have no means of qualifying this statement. The person who started all of this to begin with was trying to blackmail the community with trumped up charges because he took community grant money and spent it on himself. Please stay in your liberal utopia and leave our (black)school administrators to save our system for the kids that want to learn.

  2. If families only knew that this is happening EVERYWHERE – suburbs – to nice, respectful, honor roll students too.

    I don’t get it, cannot imagine why the administrators & school districts want this for kids – but they are doing it.

    A nice upper middle class school district with 33,000 kids does NOT need a $3 million dollar budget & 30 sworn officers.

    Please, the evidence is clear, the more police officers – the more criminal charges.

    Yet, as the number of police officers in the school increases, without more students being added – the more successful the schools & police say they are.

    hmmm…. that’s really weird, because we’re sold that these police officers are there to REDUCE incidents… “council the children”, give them classes…. how can more officers & MORE criminal conduct & charges & arrests – be “successful”?

    The ONLY way that would be considered a “success” is if your real motive as the police officer & school administrators is to get MORE CHARGES & ARRESTS – then yea – they’re super successful.

    Children are being charged with assault for tapping another student on the shoulder.

    It’s sick & not just poor – or snotty kids!

    Somewhere, someone is getting paid off big for making up bogus charges on these kids.

    If all the kids could afford PROPER legal representation – I guarantee you – 80% of these criminal charges would be dropped.

    THEY ARE BOGUS!! And what about the human rights of these kids?

    It’s nothing short of psychotic on the parts of the schools & their police & the DA’s prosecutors.

  3. Your comment raises a valid point — we must ensure that all students feel safe at school — but it overlooks the details of the situation in Meridian. The law requires that when a school administrator refers a student to the police, the officer must determine 1) is there probable cause, i.e. evidence, to charge the student, and 2) was the alleged conduct actually an actionable criminal offense. In Meridian, the police are automatically issuing warrants and arresting kids upon summary notice from the schools without determining what — if anything — the child has done. Then, the courts are automatically incarcerating these kids without any examination into whether detention is appropriate. The point is not that schools shouldn’t have the power to refer student misconduct to the police and that the juvenile courts shouldn’t have the power to examine each case and determine whether incarceration is appropriate. The point is that this analysis isn’t being done for any of the students of Meridian; instead, there is a veritable pipeline from school to court to incarceration without law enforcement or the judiciary ensuring that these decisions are being made legally. The result is not a a safer school system that has responsibly removed its most violent students, but a school system that itself has perpetuated the notion that black children — regardless of the circumstances — belong in jail for any form or degree of misbehavior. No, I wouldn’t want my own children in such a system, but I would hope you also wouldn’t want yours there.

  4. So, the regime allows for fast removal of violent thugs from schools. Odd: the author never asks who the *beneficiaries* of this regime are. The answer is easy — the beneficiaries are good, normal black kids who constitute nearly 90% of school-age kids there, and who want to attend safe schools and concentrate on their studies instead of being constantly subjected to violence, intimidation, and harassment by a small group of criminal peers. The author dismisses as “no big deal” the “small offenses” for which these violent thugs get removed from school. Like, big deal, they pushed a kid in a hallway! (Heck yeah, it’s a big deal… those pushes often result in concussions and broken bones, not to mention real psychological terror and trauma to victims, and much of this is a consistent pattern of sexual violence!). Or, big deal, a thug stole something from the teacher. (Heck yeah, it’s a big deal! Many teachers are as terrified as the students. They live in constant fear of not only direct violence, but also of having someone go through their their personal things, purses, wallets, photos of their kids, stealing and defacing them, etc). Or another cute theme — those violent thugs are now merely “disabled children”! Aha, except they aren’t ten-year-olds in wheelchairs — they are violent, out of control sixteen-year-olds who terrorize the school, and whose sociopathic behavior earned them absolution under the name of “pscyhological disability”. If every violent thug is now “pscyhologically disabled”, then, we just can’t remove violent thugs from our schools, can we? Clever!

    Impoverished black kids deserve to attend safe schools just like middle-class white kids do. This means a few violent thugs must be removed, and quickly! The do-gooders like the author would not dream of sending their own kids to schools terrorized by thugs — but they think they do favors to the rest of us by keeping the thugs in other kids’ schools. Shame on them. Hypocrites.