STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Students try to break the schools-to-prisons pipeline

Zak Rosen
Michigan Radio

Theschool-to-prison pipeline is a nationwide pattern of students being pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

Groups like the ACLU argue young people, especially African Americans, are suspended and expelled from school at disproportionate rates, and research suggests that once they’re expelled, those students are more likely to end up in prison.

Now, a group of people most affected by the school-to-prison pipeline are working to end it.  

To understand the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to understand how Michigan’s zero tolerance policies work schools.

Originally, they were created as a way to keep guns out of schools.

The ACLU’s RoddMonts points out, “It was expanded to include a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with weapons or safety necessarily. “

Things like misconduct, insubordination, intolerance, loitering, disrespect, verbal abuse.  These offenses increasingly result in mandated suspensions or expulsions.

"Every time there’s a shooting or an incident of serious violence in the school, our tendency is to say we need more police, we need more weapons, we need harsher penalties.  But that’s exactly what got us to this point now," Monts says.

To get a sense of how casually suspensions are doled out in some Michigan schools, let's go to a role playing exercise that took place at a social work conference in Lansing last week.

Here's the set up: Trevon is sitting behind Rasul in math class. They’re taking a test and the teacher just stepped out for a minute. Raul’s blazing through. Looks like he knows what he’s doing, but Trevon keeps looking up from his desk and tapping Rasul on the shoulder.

“Dude, stop talking to me.  I’m trying to do my test.  Stop bothering me, man,”

“Rasul, I got to number 7. Shake your head if the answer is b."

“Look, if you don’t stop by asking me I’m gonna smack you.”

The two high schoolers get up from their desks and get right up in each other's faces.

When the teacher comes back, she’s furious.

“Excuse me, what is going on?  Get out, get out of my class.  Right now.  I don’t care.  Go, go.”

A security guard is called, and Trevon and Rasul both get suspended.

Though that didn’t actually happen, it’s not an uncommon story.  In fact, Detroit schools gave out over 25,000 suspensions last year. 

Some of the many reasons a student can be suspended or expelled from a State of Michigan Educational Achievement Authority school.

Trevon Stapleton and RasulZakie are members of Youth Voice, a student-led community organizing group with 12 chapters in Detroit.

Their reenactment was part of a workshop they were leading about "the school to prison pipeline," and how school social workers can advocate on behalf of students.

Youth Voice is mounting a campaign to change the way schools address discipline.

Their ultimate goal is to convince the governor to create a budget line for restorative practices in every public school in Michigan.

That means instead of investing in more surveillance and security guards, they’d like to see students, teachers and counselors trained in conflict resolution and peer mediation. 

Youth Voice has 12 chapters in Detroit.

“Restorative practices has proven to reduce violence in schools, keep youth off the streets, increase graduation rates.

West Philadelphia High School saw 50% drop in suspensions after implementing restorative practices in 2007 and 2008.

"Violence incidents dropped 52% in the first year and another 42% the next,” says Chanel Kithen of Youth Voice.

Using restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions has already taken root in some Michigan schools, but not many.

So the members of Youth Voice will continue traveling around the state, insisting that students should be at the table when thinking about addressing school’s discipline policies.

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