ATLANTA — Official interviews and evidence gathering will start soon in Meridian, Miss., a year after federal officials accused several agencies of operating a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline. The case has helped motivate other communities to look more closely at their own schools, said Scott Roberts, who leads the Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track campaign in Mississippi.
The Department of Justice sued the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the county Youth Court judges, the state and two state agencies in October 2012.
The DOJ alleges that the agencies run a “school-to-prison pipeline:” a system that criminalizes youths, especially young people of color, by answering petty rule-breaking with placement in a system that deprives them of due process.
Two months after the suit was filed, the defendants asked the U.S. District Court judge in Jackson to dismiss the case against the two Youth Court judges.
This month, the judge rejected the motion and scheduled a case management conference for Oct. 7.
That’s when the judge and attorneys from both sides will set ground rules for their case, such as how many witnesses and questions will be allowed, and the timeframe for gathering evidence and filing motions.
“We are not going anywhere. Our children are too important to us,” said Lauderdale County NAACP President John Harris. “We won’t stand by and let our most valuable resource go down the drain without a fight.”
His NAACP chapter was an early mover in the effort to research, document and call for legal action with regard to school discipline.
Meridian City schools are not part of the school-to-prison pipeline case, but they are under DOJ supervision in a similar matter tied to a separate, decades-old desegregation case. In May, Meridian schools signed a consent order to settle DOJ charges that black students face harsher punishment that white students for similar misdeeds.
The order directs Meridian schools to handle minor rule-breaking on campus with school staff instead of police calls, trips to court, and long student suspensions or expulsions.
It also mandates the schools use Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), a discipline system that encourages positive, proactive prevention over reactive punishments for students. The schools must also collect standardized data on rule-breaking and rule-breakers.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Harris. “Of course we need more transparency with the school system” about the discipline numbers being collected.
Harris sits on a DOJ-mandated advisory board that aims to make sure the schools’ code of conduct mirrors the consent decree.
Meridian started this school year with a leader who took office in 2011, after the DOJ collected the data it used in the complaint against the system. Superintendent Alvin Taylor wrote a public letter at the beginning of this school year saying that PBIS will be fully implemented in every school by the time the students take summer break.
Over two years, the school board’s goals include maintaining safe and orderly schools and brining the graduation rate to at least 85 percent.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is still a very serious issue in Mississippi,” said Scott Roberts.
Roberts is a man on a mission. Or rather, a campaign. He works with the Advancement Project, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights group, and leads its Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track campaign in Mississippi.
In a January 2013 report entitled “Handcuffs on Success,” the Advancement Project, the Mississippi NAACP and state ACLU argued that statewide Mississippi too often refers youth to detention centers for “typical adolescent” non-violent behavior.
Besides channeling kids into trouble, the report argued, the system harms teachers, families, communities and even Mississippi’s economic health.
Since it was published, “we’ve definitely seen some serious responses from school districts and probably more from parents,” said Roberts. Greenville City schools have changed their rules and seen referral numbers decline. Parents and students in DeSoto County formed a group promoting justice in schools, he said.
Next week is the annual nationwide Week of Action on School Push Out, organized by the Dignity in Schools campaign, a nationwide network of juvenile justice, civil rights, legal aid and other organizations. At least nine Mississippi towns will host events.
Plenty of people at the local level “get it” now, said Roberts, they see a thing that they want to change.
It’s less so under the dome in Jackson, however. This year, the state Legislature voted some $7 million in funding to help put armed officers in schools.
On the law enforcement side, the “Handcuffs” report recommends training school resource officers in restorative justice, and hiring other professionals to help with discipline, like counselors and social works.
“This is a work in progress,” said Harris. “We’ve had some wins but there are many more wins that need to take place.”
Nationwide, juvenile justice programs in seven states are involved in open cases with the Department of Justice’s Special Litigation Section: California, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Tennessee. Most are about treatment at detention centers.