Cedrico Green can't exactly remember how many times he went back and forth to juvenile. When asked to venture a guess he says, "Maybe 30." He was put on probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight when he was in eighth grade. Thereafter, any of Green's school-based infractions, from being a few minutes late for class to breaking the school dress code by wearing the wrong color socks, counted as violations of his probation and led to his immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center.
But Green wasn't alone. A bracing Department of Justice lawsuit filed last month against Meridian, Miss., where Green lives and is set to graduate from high school this coming year, argues that the city's juvenile justice system has operated a school to prison pipeline that shoves students out of school and into the criminal justice system, and violates young people's due process rights along the way.
In Meridian, when schools want to discipline children, they do much more than just send them to the principal's office. They call the police, who show up to arrest children who are as young as 10 years old. Arrests, the Department of Justice says, happen automatically, regardless of whether the police officer knows exactly what kind of offense the child has committed or whether that offense is even worthy of an arrest. The police department's policy is to arrest all children referred to the agency.
Once those children are in the juvenile justice system, they are denied basic constitutional rights. They are handcuffed and incarcerated for days without any hearing and subsequently warehoused without understanding their alleged probation violations.
"[D]efendants engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct through which they routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children's constitutional rights," the DOJ's 37-page complaint reads. Meridian's years of systemic abuse punish youth "so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience," the complaint reads.
The federal lawsuit casts a wide net in indicting the systems that worked to deny Meridian children their constitutional rights. It names as defendants the state of Mississippi; the city of Meridian; Lauderdale County, which runs the Lauderdale County Youth Court; and the local Defendant Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young for violating Meridian students' rights up and down the chain.
The DOJ's complaint also charges that in the course of its eight-month investigation the city blocked the inquiry by refusing to hand over youth court records. Attorneys for city officials deny that claim, and say they are bound by law to protect the confidentiality of youth who've been through the system and so cannot share their records with the federal government.
'Judge, Jury and Executioner'
The DOJ's lawsuit, despite its bombshell revelations for the rest of the country, has been a long time coming. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP have been concerned about Meridian for years.
The SPLC's inquiry into Meridian began in 2008, when attorneys started hearing reports of "horrific abuse" of youth housed in juvenile detention centers, said Jody Owens, managing attorney of the SPLC's juvenile justice initiative in Mississippi. Advocates learned that 67 percent of youth in detention centers arrived there from the Meridian school system, Owens said. In between school and detention, students were denied access to counsel and due process, and many were never made aware of what they were even being arrested for. "The administrators were the judge, jury and executioner," Owens said.
This practice has also appeared to target black students. Meridian, a city of 40,000 people, is 61 percent African-American. But over a five-year period, Owens said, "There was never once a white kid that was expelled or suspended for the same offense that kids of color were suspended for."
Among the infractions that landed Green, who is black, in juvenile detention were talking back to a teacher, wearing long socks and coming to school without wearing a belt. He was behind bars for stretches of time as long as two weeks, and the real rub, his mother Gloria said, is that weekends didn't count as days served. A 10-day suspension stretched to 14 actual days; time for Meridian juvenile justice officials apparently stopped on weekends. All that back and forth out of school and in juvenile took a real toll on Green's education, and he was held back from the eighth grade.
"It was mind-boggling," Gloria Green said. "My son loved school and to be kicked out as much as he was, one year he just couldn't catch up."
"We did everything we know to do. I went over to the school and got make-up work, and he still failed two subjects and at that point I didn't know which way what my child was going to go."
"We talk about the school to prison pipeline and it's often an abstract thing," said Shakti Belway, an attorney who worked closely with families on the Meridian case for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "But here it is literally happening over ridiculous, minor charges." Indeed, children as young as elementary school students have been taken directly from school and forced to serve school suspensions inside a jail cell. In its complaint, the DOJ charged the city's police department with operating a de facto "taxi service" shuttling students away from school and into youth jails.
Studying While Black
But Meridian doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of injustice. Every which way a person can look—from elementary to high school, at a national level and on down to the most local—black students are far more likely to be punished and to be punished more harshly than all other students.
A 2010 study by Russell Skiba, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, looked at four decades of data from 9,000 of the nation's 16,000 middle schools. It found that black boys were three times as likely to be suspended as white boys and that black girls were four times as likely to be suspended as white girls. It is a serious, endemic issue.
The federal government's case raises troubling questions about the racial disproportionality that school discipline policies produce broadly. Zero tolerance policies, which crack down on school-based infractions with automatic, harsh punishments, are the mandatory-mimimums of the school discipline world. But whatever their merits and drawbacks, said Skiba, they shouldn't generate racially disparate outcomes. "I think what this suit says is: Whatever you do in a school district, why would it be that there would be racial and ethnic disparities? If we're going to choose suspensions and expulsions and police presence, why are students of color overrepresented in that?"
Research shows that if the intent behind zero-tolerance policies is to discourage misbehavior and foster good learning environments, they don't do the job. A sweeping 2006 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that zero-tolerance policies don't actually make schools safer, and in fact can work to push students away from school. If, however, the intent is to push students of color out of school, away from their educational futures and into the criminal justice system, there is also a body of evidence that suggests that zero-tolerance policies are rather effective instruments.
For Gloria Green, the lawsuit is the answer to prayers she repeated over and over when her son was going back and forth to jail. "It was degrading to me because I was like, 'My son is not a criminal. Why is he behind bars?' "
"I would always say, 'Dang, I wish there was somebody that could help me,' because I didn't know what I could do and I was afraid that if I went to his school and stood my ground it'd make things hard for my child." She's fully supportive of legal action now, but not just because she wants belated justice for Cedrico. "I'm excited because I have a 13-year-old coming up in the Meridian Public Schools as well."