Officials and civil rights activists want arrests of students, mostly Black, to stop.
Federal civil rights attorneys are suing the city of Meridian, Mississippi, and others for operating what the government labels a school-to-prison pipeline. Federal lawyers contend that students in Meridian are being denied their constitutional rights and that they are incarcerated for minor infractions in school.
The defendants include Lauderdale County, judges of the county's Youth Court and the State of Mississippi Division of Youth Services. Roughly 6,000 students, more than 85 percent of them African-American, attend grades kindergarten through 12th grade in a dozen schools in the Lauderdale County School District.
"We had no choice but to file suit," said Roy Austin, a deputy assistant attorney general.
It's the first time that a local jurisdiction has been charged under a law designed to protect the due process rights of juveniles in such circumstances.
According to the suit filed by the Justice Department, children in the schools have been arrested and handcuffed while at school. Also, the students are often detained for more than 48 hours while waiting for a hearing, the suit says. Also, the municipalities do not provide students with legal representation.
Derrick T. Simmons, a state senator in Mississippi, said that the conditions in the school system have created a firestorm in the state.
“People are extremely alarmed and outraged by this case,” Simmons said in an interview with BET.com.
“What is most alarming is the fact these children are not committing violations that are serious,” said Simmons, who is Black. “They are arrested for things like not wearing the proper school clothes or talking in class. It’s very disturbing because I would have to believe that there are students who don’t look like me who are violating school rules at the same rate, but nothing happens to them.”
Austin said that Meridian is not the only location in the country with such a system. However, he said, it is the only one to date where local authorities have not been fully cooperative with federal investigators.
Simmons said a decision is expected in the early part of 2013.
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(Photos from left: facebook.com/DerrickTSimmons, REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)