Meridian Star

October 12, 2012

DEADLINE PASSES

Attorneys respond to ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ probe deadline passes

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —  A deadline has passed in the U.S. Department of Justice ongoing investigation into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian and Lauderdale County.

    The investigation accuses the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court, Mississippi Department of Human Services, and two youth court judges, Veldore Young and Frank Coleman, of violating juveniles' constitutional rights to due process when youth are referred for law enforcement action by public schools.

    When DOJ notified city, county and state officials of the investigation on Aug. 10, it gave them 60 days to engage in meaningful negotiations or face a possible lawsuit in federal court.

    Wednesday marked the 60-day deadline, but when asked the status of the case and whether meaningful negotiations have taken place, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said they are declining to comment at this time.

    A statement accompanying DOJ's Aug. 10 letter said its investigation showed that "the agencies have helped to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution."

    The findings also show, the DOJ claims, that "children in Lauderdale County have been routinely and repeatedly incarcerated for allegedly committing school disciplinary infractions and are punished disproportionately, without constitutionally required procedural safeguards."

    DOJ also says children have been arrested at school for offenses as minor as defiance.

    "Furthermore, children on probation are routinely arrested and incarcerated for allegedly violating their probation by committing minor school infractions, such as dress code violations, which result in suspensions," the DOJ said. "The department’s investigation showed that students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities."

    Attorneys for city and county officials have denied the allegations. In an Aug. 23 letter to DOJ, City Attorney Ronnie Walton and County Attorney Rick Barry said the department should provide detailed facts and records or documents to support its allegations. The attorneys also wrote that they believed the investigation was not fair and impartial.

    DOJ also accused the Youth Court judges and DHS of withholding information about juvenile cases from them. Barry and Walton responded to that by reminding DOJ that they had already been advised the records were confidential and could not be voluntarily turned over.

    "Both judges informed your representative," Barry and Walton wrote, "that if they were to obtain an affidavit from each juvenile, authorizing the release of their records, signed by them, if adults, and signed by their legal guardians, if still minor, the record would be released."

    They also told DOJ it could get a federal court order directing the youth court judges to release the confidential information.

    Walton said Wednesday the city and the county have met with the Mississippi Attorney General's office. The AG's office is representing DHS and was asked, Walton said, to defend the two judges, but they felt it was not appropriate to do so. It remains to be decided who will represent Young and Coleman. Walton is representing the city of Meridian. He said he sent a letter to DOJ  on Sept. 18 regarding the Meridian Police Department.

    While many of the DOJ's findings are incorrect, Walton wrote, the Meridian Police Department has since revised its procedure for responding to calls from the Meridian Public School District.

    "This amended procedure provides that the Meridian Police Department only responds to calls from the Meridian Public School District during the normal school day for incidents involving the commission of a felony, physical violence, illegal drugs, or based upon an order from a Youth Court Judge or Judge of a court of other competent jurisdiction," Walton wrote. "No officer may sign an affidavit dealing with a juvenile or transport a juvenile from the school grounds unless the offense for which that officer is charging that individual took place in view of the officer."

    "We've told DOJ that we are willing to have discussions," Walton said.

    Barry, who represents the county, said attorneys will have a conference call with DOJ next week.

    "We still stand by our response," Barry said on Wednesday. "We're certainly willing to sit down and meet with them. Obviously, the county can't agree to a position that we don't feel is the right position."