The Meridian mess

Recently, the Justice Department filed suit against the city of Meridian, Mississippi and surrounding Lauderdale County for what it claims is the operation of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” This comes after an initial probe gave the jurisdiction sixty days to change their behavior. Within the complaint, are examples of extreme acts of school discipline that cross the line into constitutional infringements in the district. According to CNN, these include:

  • Children are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time.
  • Children detained wait more than forty-eight hours for a hearing, in violation of constitutional requirements.
  • Children are routinely not granted legal representation during the juvenile-justice process.
The effects of incarceration at a young age on children can be traumatizing.

The so-called “offenses” that led to these punishments are instances of children acting as, well, children: talking, dress code violations, and defiance. Violations like these occur in thousands of classrooms every day without teachers and administrators calling the police. Yet for some reason in the City of Meridian and Lauderdale County, this has become common practice. And, unfortunately, this first arrest is simply the first stop on the pipeline. With the next infraction, the police re-arrest the student for a violation of probation and the student must then spend time at the last stop, the juvenile-detention center. As the suit claims, “incarceration is used as a "medium for school discipline."

The situation is even more troubling in that district-wide, 86 percent of students are African American, but students referred to the court system were 100 percent minorities. (Nationally, the figure is a distressing 70 percent).  The fact that this is happening in Mississippi, historically the site of numerous civil-rights infractions, also raises some eyebrows. The state already has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country but it appears this area’s school-behavior-management plan is bent on making the state number one.

The effects of incarceration at a young age on children can be traumatizing. The Civil Rights Project’s report, Opportunity Suspended, has a much more in-depth look at some of the results when schools remove children. Their chances for success fall drastically. Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, (there’s an excellent review on our website) also discusses the physiological and emotional impact a traumatic experience—like being taken away in handcuffs in front of your classmates—can have on the achievement of a child. Thus removing a child or sending them away should only be an absolute last option.

Removing them and incarcerating students teaches the wrong lesson. Tough explains how perseverance, grit, and determination are important traits and skills for children, especially those raised in less than ideal circumstances. Simply removing a child from a school and detaining them does nothing to reinforce these traits. In reality, it reinforces the immature belief that a problem removed is a problem solved.

In the face of this untenable situation, the Justice Department had no other alternative than to go to court. The department mentioned other locations where similar discipline structures are in use—Shelby County, Tennessee—but they are working with the department to change. The area around Meridian refused to cooperate. Leaders failed to work with the feds to improve the practices at the schools—turning a blind eye much the same as they had to the children they worked to imprison. The hand of the government was forced and, thankfully, they are now using it.

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