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Meridian is not alone under the Justice Department magnifying glass. In a somewhat similar case in Tennessee, DOJ says the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County has failed both to inform children of the charges against them and to make sure they understand what their legal rights are ahead of questioning. Like Meridian, the juvenile court is also accused of failing to hold timely hearings.

Worries about a school-to-prison pipeline have grown in recent years, but there are different ways to define the issue, said Jim Freeman, senior attorney at Advancement Project, a nonprofit legal action group that fights racial injustice.

“How I like to define it,” Freeman said, “is the use of policies and practices that increase the likelihood that young people become incarcerated.”

That includes at-school arrests for minor behavioral incidents, as well as what he calls more indirect actions, like suspensions, expulsions or references to juvenile court or alternative schools.

Such practices have grown in the last 10 to 15 years, he said. “It really started out mostly in very low income communities of color, the schools in those districts. It’s expanded pretty dramatically beyond that.”

In a high-profile Delaware case in 2009, a six-year-old was almost suspended for 45 days for having his Cub Scout knife at school. The school board intervened to cut that to three to five days.

The combination of zero-tolerance school rules, themselves fueled by safety fears, and the kind of high-stakes testing required by the federal government “create some of these dynamics,” Freeman contended.

Mississippi was under the high-stakes testing regime of the federal No Child Left Behind law until it won a waiver in July 2012.

Low-performing schools are under such pressure to meet testing benchmarks that some neglect the education of some struggling students, even pushing them out of school, reports suggest. Data compiled in a 2010 Advancement Project report finds that in several U.S. states, there was a link between the adoption of high-stakes testing and increased use of suspensions and expulsions.

“Race has certainly played a role in where we have elected to implement these policies and practices,” Freeman added, “I think the data is pretty clear.”

By mid-October Meridian, Miss. could land in court because of the federal investigators’ allegations. The DOJ threatened to file suit by then if the city and county and state agencies don’t start “meaningful negotiations” with the federal agency.

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