Meridian Star

August 19, 2012

Don't lock students up for noncriminal offenses

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     There is no excuse for locking up juveniles for noncriminal offenses.

    The U.S. Department of Justice has accused the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young, the state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services of doing just that.

    In a letter released Aug. 10, the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Meridian police automatically arrest children referred by the Meridian School District; that the children are sent to the county juvenile justice system; that the Youth Court places children on probation and sets the terms of the probation; and that the Division of Youth Services requires children on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.

    According to the letter, during interviews Meridian Police Department command staff and officers consistently characterized the department as a "taxi service" for district schools and the juvenile center.

    "MPD officers who respond to district referrals do not assess the facts or circumstances of the alleged charge, or whether the alleged conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense," the letter states.

    The federal agency further alleges that school suspensions are automatically considered violations of probation by youth counselors and the students are required to serve out their suspension in juvenile detention. Children on probation are subsequently jailed for school violations such as "dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect," the Department of Justice alleges.

    Neither the Meridian Public School District nor the Lauderdale County School District were named as possible defendants in a federal lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice has threatened to file.

    Meridian schools Superintendent Dr. Alvin Taylor has said that since July 2011, the district has only contacted law enforcement when a student commits a felonious act.

    That is as it should be.

    Students who commit criminal offenses such as bringing drugs or weapons to school, or assaulting other students or staff, should be dealt with by law enforcement and the criminal system, not the school district.

    Students on probation who violate school policy and have not committed a criminal act should be handled by the school district, not law enforcement.

    That is not to say that students who are unruly and disrupt class should not be punished — they should. But the punishment should fit the offense.

    And in defense of local officials targeted by the federal probe, we don't know the full story. They can't speak freely while under the threat of a lawsuit.

     Furthermore, schools have to maintain discipline in order to ensure that those students who want to learn can do so in the proper environment.

    Prior to the start of the new school year, Taylor announced changes in the district's discipline policy.

    "We've done a little tweaking with the discipline but only to provide more intervention steps for our students," Taylor said.

    Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is an attempt to not only give consequences for bad behavior, Taylor said, but to work with students to see what is causing their misbehavior.

    "We're doing more with counseling to try to work with them and their behavior, not just to give them a punishment but to also work with them so if they get into this situation again they can make better decisions."

    The letter by the U.S. Department of Justice fails to mention the school district's effort.

    Preventing children from getting in trouble in the first place is a win-win situation for everybody.

    As we stated earlier, however, there is no excuse for locking up children for noncriminal school offenses, even if they are on probation.

    That's just bad policy.