DOJ Quiet on Mississippi Ultimatum to Respond to School-to-Jailhouse Pipeline Allegations

Meridian courthouseA key deadline has passed in the federal investigation of an alleged “school-to-prison” pipeline in Meridian, Miss., without the U.S. Department of Justice taking any visible action.

The DOJ threatened a federal lawsuit “unless there are meaningful negotiations … within 60 days” of an Aug. 10 public letter. That letter accused the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County and state agencies of running a shoddy juvenile justice system. African-American students and students who have disabilities, according to the letter, are disproportionately caught in the net.

The DOJ, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case or deadline.

No changes have happened at Meridian city schools in the interim.

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On Oct. 10, Meridian schools spokeswoman Elizabeth McDonald said, “since we weren't named in the letter, we have not been involved with any aspect of the letter or with the city and county related to the letter. Given that the letter was not directed to the Meridian Public School District, the schools haven't been impacted by it.”

Meridian’s school board is named by the city mayor and confirmed by city council, but was not a recipient of the DOJ’s complaint.

"I'm not surprised by the ‘no comment’ by the DOJ,” said Lauderdale County NAACP Education Chair Randle Jennings. He said clearly the city and county are aware of the charges leveled against them, but accuses them of failing to communicate with constituents. “There has not been one comment coming from any city, county, or state representative official since the story broke.  All these are signs of pure guilt,” he charged.

schoolppipe_seriesThe original DOJ letter describes practices that channel Meridian city schoolchildren into a “cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution,” such as the right to speedy trial and an attorney. The. DOJ said it amounts to a school-to-prison pipeline.

But Lauderdale and Meridian called the findings “one-sided” and based on an investigation that was unprofessional and undertaken by inexperienced staff, according to a letter from their official attorneys to the DOJ. They said the DOJ had received unreliable information, had interviewed only “a few” families and made their conclusions on unsubstantiated claims.

The Meridian city attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

Photo by Bill Herndon.