Tuesday, October 30, 2012

DOJ Seeks to Stop the “school-to-prison pipeline” in Meridian, Mississippi

In the past, groups like ACLU and NYCLU have filed suits where policies and practices have led to the exacerbation of the “school-to-prison pipeline” problem. [1] In December of 2011, the U.S Department of Justice began investigating these practices in Lauderdale County in Meridian, Mississippi.  The Department of Justice revealed its findings on August 10, 2012, and gave the city 60 days to address the violations listed in their report.[2]  During the 60 days the city did not fully cooperate with the Department of Justice to resolve the inadequacies.

On Wednesday, October 24, 2012 the U.S Department of Justice filed a suit against the state of Mississippi, the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County for violating the constitutional rights of children under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The violations include failure to assess probable cause prior to arresting children, and failure to provide due process.  Presently, children in Lauderdale County are being treated like criminals, being arrested in school and incarcerated simply upon the requests of school staff, without the arresting officer assessing probable cause.

All this is being done in the name of zero tolerance policies.  The most common zero tolerance policies in schools are those concerning use or possession of drugs or weapons.  These were instituted in order to prevent drug abuse and violence in schools.  More recently, harsher consequences have been instituted for possessing weapons in the wake of tragedies such as those in Columbine and Virginia Tech.  Many argue that these policies have gone too far in some cases with punishments that are too harsh. [3]

What about zero tolerance policies for minor infractions?  Should students who commit minor infractions such as a student being late to class, not adhering to dress code standards, or talking back to teachers be arrested and incarcerated?[4]  In Lauderdale County, a significant number of children are arrested not for the possession of drugs or weapons but for the minor infractions listed.  Most people would reasonably expect that such an offense would warrant a detention, or in the worse-case scenario suspension rather than incarceration.  The Meridian Police Department’s actions indicate that they are required to arrest children if school staff requests it, without the need to establish probable cause.  In many instances children are not read their Miranda rights prior to admitting formal charges and are held without a hearing for more than 48 hours.

Here we see the lack of providing adequate safeguards to ensure that children, who are vulnerable individuals, are protected since they are unable to defend themselves.  Additionally, the children who are most often affected by these policies are those in protected classes:  minorities and children with disabilities.  Removing children from school for such minor infractions does not only violate their rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, it also denies them of a brighter future and opportunities.  Policies like this, that take a child out of school for several days hinders their academic progress.  They also discourage students from attending and completing high school due to the severity of the punishments instituted and causes them to distrust the system that is supposed to be in place to look out for their best interest.

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