Talking back and breaking dress codes may be normal behavior for school-aged kids, but in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, those minor infractions land students in jail. According to the investigative findings of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the county operates a brutal “school-to-prison pipeline," where children face repeated incarceration and abuse for the smallest misdeeds, reports CNN.
The federal agency detailed the results of its nine month investigation in a letter released this Friday. It found the system established by the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and Department of Youth Services, "‘shocks the conscience,’ resulting in the incarceration of children for alleged ‘offenses’ such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect.”
According to the investigation, “Students most affected by this situation are African-American children and children with disabilities.”
This isn’t the first time Lauderdale County has come under fire for its treatment of juveniles. In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, initiated a federal class action lawsuit against the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility for its “shockingly inhumane” practices. The center alleged that kids were "crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the arbitrary use of Mace as a punishment for even the most minor infractions -- such as 'talking too much' or failing to sit in the 'back of their cells.'"
In response to the suit, Lauderdale County officials pledged to reform their juvenile system, but according to this recent investigation, those reforms never happened.
The letter also details constitutional violations at every level of the county’s juvenile penal system. It alleges that the Meridian Police Department arrests children without probable cause and instead operates as a “taxi service” between schools and detention centers. “By policy and practice, [the Meridian Police Department] MPD automatically arrests all students referred to MPD by the District. The children arrested by MPD are then sent to the County juvenile justice system, where existing due process protections are illusory and inadequate.”
Lauderdale County officials have not yet released a statement in response to the Department of Justice investigation. The federal agency is giving them 60 days to end constitutional violations before it brings a federal lawsuit against state, county, and city officials.
What should happen to the judges, police officers, and teachers who allowed these kids to be abused by the system? And do you think the federal government will do anything about it?
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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer. In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a web editor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com