Meridian Star

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October 11, 2013

Judge sets 2014 trial in school discipline suit

JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge has scheduled a December 2014 trial for a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit that says there's a "school-to-prison pipeline" in east Mississippi that locks up students for minor infractions like flatulence or vulgar language.

    The October 2012 lawsuit said the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County have policies allowing students to be detained without probable cause or legal representation in what mainly affects black and disabled children.

    The trial has been scheduled to take place in U.S. District Court in Jackson during a two-week period beginning Dec. 8, 2014. A settlement conference is scheduled for June 25.

    The Meridian Public School District was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. In May, a federal judge approved a deal between the district and the Justice Department, known as a consent decree. The agreement calls for the district to fully comply with several measures to end discriminatory punishment by the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

    The defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges, the Mississippi Department of Human Services and DHS's Division of Youth Services.

    In court filings, the defendants have denied most of the allegations.

    The lawsuit says Meridian police arrested students without determining whether there was probable cause when a school wanted to press charges, and the students were routinely jailed.

    Once arrested, the students ended up on probation, sometimes without proper legal representation, according to the lawsuit. If the students are on probation, future school problems could be considered a violation that requires them to serve the suspension incarcerated in the juvenile detention center, the lawsuit says.

    The Justice Department says that means students can be incarcerated for "dress code infractions such as wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or for having shirts untucked; tardies; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission."

    In court a filing, youth court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young said they never revoke probation for tardiness or missing classes alone and "always seek the least restrictive form of detention" in considering the details of each case individually.

    The city said in court filings that the police department had already changed some of its policies by the time the lawsuit was filed. The city also said all parties had "indicated a willingness to participate in meaningful negotiations" and a conference call was scheduled for Oct. 25, 2012.

    But on Oct. 23, 2012, "without any explanation as to the reason" the Justice Department said it was canceling the conference and filing a lawsuit the next day.

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