- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The U.S. Justice Department says special education services remain inadequate in a Leflore County juvenile detention center that receives minors from a broad swath of northern Mississippi.

In a 19-page letter released Tuesday, the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division said the 30-bed juvenile jail lags despite promises to improve. In May, Leflore County agreed in a separate federal court settlement to improve security and physical conditions at the center.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta cited concerns about the failure to assess students who enter the center for special education needs, acquire individualized educational plans from students’ home districts, or follow methods prescribed by the plans. She also wrote that the two teachers at the center rely on a one-size-fits-all computer program for most instruction, failing to respond to individual needs.

“Children who already suffer the disruption of detention that keeps them from their home school should not also be deprived of their right to a free appropriate public education while detained,” Gupta wrote.

The detention center takes juveniles from 21 counties in the Delta region and along Interstate 55 north of Jackson. Leflore County Court Judge Kevin Adams, who oversees the center, said the average Leflore County juvenile stays there five days, although some can stay much longer. He said there have been “sincere efforts” to improve education services.

Gupta warned that the department first identified the problems in 2009 and has repeatedly told the state about them. She said that although federal officials are willing to negotiate, they will also consider a lawsuit “if a solution cannot be found promptly.”

Because the state took over the Leflore County school system in 2013, the Mississippi Department of Education is directly responsible for providing services. Gupta wrote that should be a chance for the state to model compliance for other school districts and agencies.

State Superintendent Carey Wright, in a statement, said the state is still working through problems it inherited.

“We have been working diligently to correct all deficiencies and have made significant strides toward improving the quality of educational services provided at the center,” Wright said. “We will continue to fully cooperate with the (Department of Justice) as we continue our work toward meeting the educational needs of every student in the center.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has raised similar concerns about school programs at a juvenile detention center in Hinds County. The county settled with the legal advocacy group that focuses on civil rights but has had trouble meeting the terms of the settlement.


Online: Department of Justice statement on Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center: https://1.usa.gov/1P9hZu7


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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