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

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.

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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.