WASHINGTON – Federal civil rights lawyers filed suit Wednesday against Meridian, Miss., and other defendants for operating what the government calls a school-to-prison pipeline in which students are denied basic constitutional rights, sent to court and incarcerated for minor school infractions.
The lawsuit says children who talk back to teachers, violate dress codes and commit other minor infractions are handcuffed and sent to a youth court where they are denied their rights.
It's the first time a jurisdiction has been charged under a law designed to protect the due process rights of juveniles in such circumstances.
Also among the defendants were Lauderdale County, judges of the county's Youth Court and the State of Mississippi Division of Youth Services.
About 6,000 mostly African-American students attend grades kindergarten through 12 in a dozen schools in the Lauderdale County School District.
About 86 percent of the district's students are African-American, but all of those referred to the court for violations were minorities, the government suit said.
The federal action came more than two months after the Justice Department warned local and state officials that they had 60 days to cooperate or face a federal lawsuit.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin said Wednesday that Mississippi officials had failed to cooperate with the eight-month investigation.
"We had no choice but to file suit," Austin said, giving examples of what he alleged are unconstitutional actions taken by the school district and court:
• Children are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing.
• Children detained wait more than 48 hours for a hearing, in violation of constitution requirements.
• Children make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights.
• Children are not routinely granted legal representation during the juvenile justice process.
Austin said Wednesday 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.
He pointed to Shelby County, Tennessee, as a school system where complaints had been received but where local officials had been fully cooperative with the Justice Department.
Mississippi officials did not have an immediate response to the lawsuit.