WHO: This project is aimed at examining and directly working against the current student-to-pipeline in Southeast Michigan.
WHAT: For my final project in SW504, I chose to engage in a volunteer service project with two different student advocacy organizations. I worked with: (1) the Student Rights Project (SRP) and (2) The Neutral Zone (NZ). With the SRP, I served as a member advocate in Wayne and Washtenaw Counties and represented/supported students and families caught in the cross hairs of questionable zero-tolerance disciplinary practices. With the Neutral Zone, I was a trained adult volunteer that supported the after-school program and food services for the teens in attendance. Ultimately, I volunteered for 15 hours with the SRP and 8 hours with the NZ. The goals I set for this project are: (1) To learn about the proactive strategies already in play at the Neutral Zone and understand how safe spaces support youth development and academic achievement, (2) Observe the connection between thoughtful programming for youth and its relationship to reducing the student-to-prison pipeline, (3) Engage in cases with youth put up for suspension/expulsion to learn about Michigan-specific school disciplinary practices and dependence on zero-tolerance, & (4) Advocate for youth in exclusionary cases and learn how schools could incorporate restorative strategies to support student development and positive learning environments.
WHERE: I worked with students in both Washtenaw and Wayne Counties. The concentration of my work was based in both Ann Arbor and Detroit.
WHEN: October- December 2017 (23 service hours total)
WHY + HOW: In the 1990s, a national rise in gun violence and public shootings urged for preventative legislation in school safety. Parents, school administrators, and community members advocated for uncompromising learning environments and sought for swift, definitive punishment around weapons found in schools. In a response aligned with the neoliberal-leaning tendency of American education, the federal government passed into law The Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) in 1994 with a strict zero-tolerance policy initiative (Gordon-Ellis, 2016, p. 11). As its namesake indicates, zero-tolerance allows for punitive legislation to enter into schools, banning “exception, compromise, or discretion” for students that threaten safety (Rice, 2009, p. 556). In an effort to ensure implementation nationwide, public-school funding hinged on state adoption of this bill—naturally, Michigan followed suit and zero-tolerance was mandated on the state-level. The statute specifically gave leading educational authorities (principals and superintendents) the discretion to suspend and make recommendations for expulsion if a student seriously compromises the safe learning space. This led to opening up the student-to-prison pipeline.
Despite Michigan consensus on the necessity for safer schools at the inception of zero-tolerance policy, the law quickly fell under scrutiny. Michigan school districts began tackling offenses with questionable justification as options for suspension and/or expulsion referral. Issues around “truancy, willful defiance, disruptive behavior, and dress code violation” were among the rising punishable trends under this policy, leading to an overwhelming volume of students removed from the classroom (Gordon-Ellis, 2016, p. 2). Not only was the volume of students facing exclusionary practices at an all time high, but the percentage of punishment according to race and ethnicity were entirely disproportionate to students of color.
This social justice issue ultimately comes down to policy and consequential ethics in school discipline. Should schools value safety over anything else? Or should schools consider equity as the foundation for keeping schools safe in the long-term? In current American reality, schools have been placing safety above all other factors in schools, which have led to a rise in discriminatory, subjective practices that exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.
With this project, I am interested in: (1) understanding what current factors are in play in public schools that perpetuate zero-tolerance policy, (2) directly advocating in case-specific issues with students and families being impacted by potential student-to-prison pipeline implications, (3) observing programs that support and promote safe spaces for healthy youth development, and (4) developing personal action items for social worker students like myself.
Identified Service Problem + Relevance to SW: The consequences of Michigan zero-tolerance policy are disproportionately affecting minority youth, increasing ease of punitive punishments, encouraging recidivism, and promoting ease of access to the student-to-prison pipeline. Studies have shown that ZTP causes accelerated delinquency, harsher punishments for relatively minor infractions, and the criminalization of students in their learning environment. This matters to social workers because the policy disproportionately affects students of color, who are more likely to enter the criminal justice system as a result. This is a social justice issue on the basis of education equity, criminalizing youth, and discrimination.
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