Lawsuit Claims Students Sent to Prison for Dress Code and Flatulence

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division conducted a nine-month investigation into accusations that local police were arresting high school students for minor infractions. They accuse city officials of operating a “school-to-prison pipeline” that jails students, days at a time, for minor infractions without a probable cause hearing.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Mississippi State officials and local officials over high school student arrests. In the suit, the Justice Department accuses local police of arresting students who had been suspended from school with no “probable cause to believe the student had committed a crime.” The lawsuit said police have made arrests for dress code violations or talking back to teachers and for flatulence in class, alleging that they specifically targeted black and disabled youths.

This “school-to-prison pipeline” claim says students are handcuffed and arrested in school, sent to a youth court and denied their constitutional rights for minor infractions, such as talking back to teachers or violating dress codes. The lawsuit states that they are then transported more than 80 miles to a youth detention center, as reported by the Associated Press.

Many of the students end up on probation, without being provided proper legal representation and without determining whether there is probable cause when a school wants to press charges.  For those students placed on probation, a future school violation could be grounds for immediate suspension that they must serve while incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.

According to the lawsuit, students can be incarcerated for “dress code infractions, even for wearing the wrong color socks or undershirt, or not having their shirts tucked into their pants; tardiness; flatulence in class; using vulgar language; yelling at teachers; going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission.”

The lawsuit states that incarceration is used as a “medium for school discipline,” according to the A.P.

It was noted that unconstitutional actions on the part of the school district and court, which include making the children wait more than 48 hours for a hearing and making the children admit to wrongdoing, without first being advised of their Miranda rights.

According to CNN, this location is the only one to date where local authorities have not been fully cooperative with federal investigators.

In March, a survey by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found that black students are more than three and a half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled and more than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement are black or Hispanic.

Many experts have attributed the school-to-prison pipeline to zero tolerance policies – a hold-over from the war on drugs- that punish all major and minor rule infractions equally, bringing police disproportionately into high-minority schools.

The lawsuit mentions, “Even one court appearance during high school increases a child’s likelihood of dropping out of school, and court appearances are especially detrimental to children with no or minimal previous history of delinquency.”

The federal agency detailed the results of its nine-month investigation in a letter. It found the system established by their city’s Department of Youth Services, “shocks the conscience; resulting in the incarceration of children for alleged ‘offenses’ such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect.”

According to this investigation, “students most affected by this situation are African-American children and children with disabilities.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this town has come under fire for its treatment of juveniles. In 2009, a nonprofit civil rights group initiated a federal class action lawsuit against the Juvenile Detention Facility for its “shockingly inhumane” practices. The center alleged that children were “crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the arbitrary use of Mace as a punishment for even the most minor infractions – such as ‘talking too much’ or failing to sit in the ‘back of their cells.’”

In response to the suit, officials pledged to reform their juvenile system, but according to this recent investigation, those reforms never happened.

The letter also lists constitutional violations at almost every level of the county’s juvenile penal system. It alleges that the Police Department arrested children without probable cause, instead acting as a “taxi service” between schools and a juvenile detention center, where students did not have access to lawyers or counselors.

County officials have not yet released a statement in response to the Department of Justice investigation. The federal agency is giving them 60 days to end constitutional violations before it brings a federal lawsuit against state, county and city officials.

In a similar situation in Tennessee, the justice department did not sue after local officials agreed to cooperate to improve the system.

What do you think of the school officials, as well as the state, city and county officials for putting these policies in place?  What do they think they will accomplish by incarcerating this youths for such minor actions?

Feel free to comment on this blog post.  Contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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