SPLC: DOJ settlement in school-to-prison pipeline case will protect Mississippi children

Settlement agreements reached in a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit sparked by an SPLC investigation are an important step toward preventing east Mississippi children from being needlessly pushed out of school and into the justice system, the SPLC said today.

Settlement agreements reached in a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit sparked by an SPLC investigation are an important step toward preventing east Mississippi children from being needlessly pushed out of school and into the justice system, the SPLC said today.

“Today marks a significant milestone toward ensuring that children in Mississippi, especially children of color, are protected from unnecessary encounters with law enforcement,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “We commend the Department of Justice and state and local officials in Mississippi for establishing a plan that will help all children have an equal opportunity to pursue their education.”

The settlement agreements were reached in United States v. City of Meridian, et al. The DOJ has reached two agreements – one that resolves the DOJ’s claims against Meridian and another that resolves its claims against the state. Claims against Lauderdale County and Lauderdale County Youth Court judges are still being litigated.

The SPLC first learned about the school-to-prison pipeline in Lauderdale County after litigating a class action lawsuit that ultimately closed the county juvenile detention center. Through the investigation, the SPLC found that a number of the children housed there were detained for minor school infractions, such as dress code violations. The SPLC gathered the stories of these children and shared them with the U.S. Justice Department, which subsequently resulted in them filing their federal lawsuit against the state in 2012.

The settlement agreement with the city bars the police department from arresting minors for behavior that is a school discipline issue. There also must be documented probable cause for youths arrested for criminal offenses. Officers are barred from interviewing youths unless a guardian or lawyer is present.

The agreement with the state addresses unconstitutional youth probation practices by the Mississippi Division of Youth Services. Probation officers will be required to take measures to protect a youth’s right against self-incrimination. Probation officers are also barred from unnecessarily recommending incarceration of youths for probation violations that are typically not offenses that result in a youth being detained, such as a minor infraction of school rules.