DOJ uncovers extensive IDEA violations in Mississippi youth detention facility

desks and chairs in an empty classroom
Right to FAPE Continues while in Juvenile Detention

The Department of Justice, in a letter issued to state officials January 12, slammed the state of Mississippi for failing to remedy a variety of federal special education law violations at a juvenile detention facility, first identified by the agency nearly five years ago.

“Students with disabilities do not forfeit their rights to special education services simply because they are accused of or have committed juvenile offenses,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “Agencies that are involved in the provision of special education of children in correctional facilities, such as the Mississippi Department of Education, must continue to ensure that students receive special education services even while incarcerated.”

The DOJ first began investigating the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in 2009 and issued extensive findings two years later. The Mississippi state government assumed responsibility for the detention center in 2013, when it took over the Leflore County School District.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, under what is known as the Child Find requirement, places an affirmative obligation on educators to identify students who may be in need of special education services.

As detailed in the letter, the Detention Center provides an intake form to screen new students, but does not inquire into their past special education services. In fact, it lacks a systematic process for obtaining students’ Individualized Education Programs. Also, the office charged with obtaining those records is closed for the month of July, even though students frequently enter the Detention Center during the summer months.

Once at the Detention Center, DOJ observed that the staff fails to observe students for disability related educational difficulties, or refer them for special education evaluations. In fact, no student has been referred for an evaluation since October 2014, although special education students are traditionally over-represented in juvenile detentions.

The DOJ also concluded that the Detention Center does not provide students a Free Appropriate Public Education under the standards required by the IDEA, pointing to frequent delays in obtaining IEPs for students.

“Incarceration for even a short time is a turbulent time in a child’s life, and appropriate special education services can be a stabilizing factor,” U.S. Attorney Felicia C. Adams of the Northern District of Mississippi said in the news release. “The Justice Department looks forward to continued cooperation with Mississippi to resolve these findings under mutually agreeable terms.”