When the Department of Justice agreed to investigate truancy courts in Texas this year—where children as young as 12 can be tried in adult criminal court for skipping or showing up late to class—it emphasized that the schools’ harsh punishments were disproportionately hurting children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Disability Rights Texas, which brought the original complaint alongside other advocacy groups, cheered the news.
Now, the Justice Department brings attention to a similarly troubling school policy elsewhere—but it is focusing on a different type of discrimination in the process. The department announced last week that it had reached settlement agreements with the state of Mississippi, the city of Meridian, and the Lauderdale County Youth Court, after it had investigated them for systematically obstructing juveniles’ right to due process in different ways. The department had alleged that the policies there overwhelmingly hurt black students—hurt them to such an extent as to violate the Civil Rights Act, and the mandatory racial desegregation of the nation’s schools in the 1960s.
In a complaint the department filed against the Meridian school district in 2012, attorneys for the department’s Civil Rights Division put the school’s policies in context with Meridian’s court-ordered racial integration back in 1969. It referred to the district’s obligation not to discipline children “in a manner that perpetuates or furthers the segregation of students on the basis of race.”
“For many children, adolescent misbehavior that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office—and perhaps a stint in study hall—now results in jail time and a greater possibility of lifelong involvement with the criminal justice system.”
The suit argued that, through disproportionate suspensions and expulsions from school, the district was not only denying black students the right to equal rule of law, but the right to equal education as well. After years of interviews and site visits, Justice Department representatives had determined that “black students received a significantly larger share of discipline referrals than their proportion of District enrollment, and the majority of these referrals were for minor misbehaviors such as defiance, disobedience, and disruption, categories that rely on subjective interpretation.”
Other accounts have underscored how extreme the schools’ punishments can be, and how questionable the justifications for them. Jody Owens, the managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in Politico last month about Meridian public school students who were sent to the local juvenile detention center for dress code violations, or for passing gas in the classroom.
“For many children, adolescent misbehavior that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office—and perhaps a stint in study hall—now results in jail time and a greater possibility of lifelong involvement with the criminal justice system,” Owens wrote. He also noted that 86 percent of the public school population in Meridian is black, and that the school district suspended students at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
In the proposed agreement with the city and state, the Justice Department attorneys laid out its requirements for changes in Meridian’s policies, which need to happen in the next 90 days. For instance, Meridian police should only make “school-based arrests” when they have actual probable cause—not just when teachers or administrators ask them to. When serving warrants on juveniles, they should avoid doing it at school, where kids can be traumatized by the negative attention that attracts. Whenever police get involved in school discipline matters, the children must be questioned with a guardian or attorney, and informed of their Miranda rights, in ways that they can understand them.
The city must also record (and publish online) the age, race, and gender of all the juveniles referred from the schools to the police, so as to be held accountable for any patterns of bias they may exhibit. Finally, Meridian will have to hold regular open community meetings to discuss the situation, and community members will have direct access to the Justice Department with any violations of these rules that they see going forward.
It’s a thorough plan, and it joins other lawsuits and settlements that the Civil Rights Division has been pursuing in Dallas, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri, and the state of Georgia. In all cases, the department has found punishment of kids disproportionate to their alleged bad behavior, punishment disproportionately meted out to black children, and a disturbing lack of due process all around.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Jody Owens called the Meridian agreement last week “a significant milestone.” But this quickly expanding list of Justice Department actions also begs the question, which school district is next? Where else aren’t children and their families getting the equal protection under the law—and the equal respect from their local authorities—that they deserve?
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.