Sprawled across a cold, concrete slab in a tiny cell, H.D. carved “HATE ME” into her forearm with a toenail clipping and toothpaste cap. The bloody three-inch letters were dark and pronounced across her skin, and the redness echoed the bruises on her ankles from being shackled for more than three weeks by employees at Columbia Training School. This particular night, H.D. was on suicide watch, but Columbia staff members had left her alone with the door locked, only intermittently peeking in for a couple of seconds to see where she was located in the cell.
This incident and a long list of instances like it prompted a group of teenage girls from Columbia Training School to sue a handful of Columbia administrators and state officials including Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Don Taylor and Columbia Administrator Donald Armagost. The school is supposed to serve as a state-run facility for reforming at-risk adolescents.
“Instead of providing the individual plaintiffs with constitutionally required care and rehabilitation, the defendants ignore well-established law and act with deliberate indifference by subjecting the girls to horrendous abuses such as prolonged, punitive shackling and, in at least one case, a sexual assault,” the lawsuit states.
The attorney general’s office announced last week that the state would pursue a dismissal of the lawsuit citing the plaintiffs’ lack of standing and protection of state officials under the 11th Amendment, among other reasons.
In June, Taylor announced that his department was launching an investigation into the allegations, which he said would conclude by the end of June. Four months later, the investigation is still going on, and DHS Deputy Administrator Richard Harris says that he does not know when it will be completed.
“We are investigating allegations that were made, and verifying and substantiating fact,” Harris said. “We are still waiting for outcomes and conclusions.” So far, the department has terminated one employee and suspended three or four others, Harris said.
Mississippi Youth Justice Project Attorney Sheila Bedi, who represents the girls, said that Columbia no longer has qualified mental-health staff and has begun busing suicidal girls, bound in shackles, 120 miles to Oakley Training School for medical evaluation.
Chairman of the House Juvenile Justice Committee, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, has been vocal about wanting Columbia to close its doors as a “reform school.” He said Taylor told him about a month ago that he would not release the report until the litigation concluded. “He didn’t want to put it out in the public when there’s litigation pending … and I respect his decision,” Flaggs said.
The state filed a motion to dismiss on Aug. 20, stating that the plaintiffs “failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” regarding a request for “declaratory and injunctive relief for inadequate mental health and rehabilitative treatment.”
“It’s a standard defense tactic,” Bedi said. “The thing that’s interesting about it is that they’ve got very smart lawyers, and instead of having those lawyers work to ensure that the facilities are compliant with federal law, they’re trying to escape accountability.
In an Oct. 15 response to the motion, Bedi stated that the defendants’ arguments “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the applicable law.”
“We believe that the violations here are so blatant that it would be very difficult for a judge to find a reason to dismiss this case,” Bedi said.
The July lawsuit is not the first to be brought against the state concerning Columbia Training School. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit citing cruel and unusual punishment and chronic neglect at Columbia and Oakley Training Schools.
The list of offenses included denying students adequate medical care, staff members forcing students to eat their own vomit, hog-tying them and shackling them to poles. As part of the settlement, the schools were brought under a consent decree, requiring the juvenile justice system to clean up their act by 2009.
“The timetable is incremental leading up to 2009, so that (we’re) at 100 percent by 2009,” Harris said.
The operation of Columbia Training School costs the state $6 million a year for about 25 girls. Bedi said that she doesn’t understand how the state can justify the expense.
“I understood that the people operating this facility are fiscal conservatives, and I just wonder how that expense can be justified,” Bedi said. “I’m just not sure how, given all of the needs that we have in this state, that the cost of $600 per child per day when what we’re paying for is essentially state-sanctioned child abuse, I don’t understand how that can be justified.”
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