Lauderdale County officials say they were surprised about a lawsuit that was filed against the county, the two county youth court judges, the city of Meridian and state of Mississippi. The Justice Department filed the lawsuit Wednesday. It claims that a 'School to Jail Pipeline,' has violated the constitutional rights of students in Lauderdale County. The lawsuit charges that most of the affected children were African American or disabled.
Attorney Rick Barry, who represents Lauderdale County, says he was caught off guard by the legal action. With a lawsuit filed in federal court, at this time he says there's not much that he can say about the case. However, Barry tells Newscenter 11 that he was shocked to learn about the lawsuit a day and a half before all parties involved in the investigation were set to have a conference call. That conference call was set for Thursday; the lawsuit was filed the day prior.
The Justice Department probe started in December 2011. Federal investigators released their findings in August 2012. The results accuse local officials of violating the 4th, 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Among the findings are that policies were in place that allowed students to be jailed for minor offenses, and some incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing.
Representatives from the Justice Department are accusing local officials of not engaging in meaningful negotiations to remedy the violations in a timely fashion.
In letters that representatives for the city and county sent to DOJ officials after the findings were released in August, it is stated that a major sticking point in negotiations is a request from the investigators to obtain the confidential youth court records. This is something that defendants say state law prohibits, without a court order.
Meanwhile, local NAACP officials say they support the lawsuit.
'I think that they have a case and I think that they've done their homework,' says Meridian/Lauderdale County NAACP President, John C. Harris. 'I think it's time for us to come out of denial and come to the point that we realize that we have issues in Lauderdale County.'
In a letter to the Justice Department last month, Attorney Ronnie Walton, who represents the city of Meridian, stated that the police department has amended its procedures for responding to calls at Meridian Public Schools. It now only responds during normal schools hours for incidents that involve: a felony, physical violence, weapons, illegal drugs or a court order.