Final Project Proposal: Battling the Injustices of the School-to-Prison Pipeline through Service

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”   ―William Faulkne

As discussed in class, the goal of the final project is to explore the content learned in SW504 through the exploration of a personal social justice passion.   I have been, and always will be, an advocate for the rights of transitional-aged youth. More particularly, I believe that a pivotal way to seek change in this demographic is to advocate for education rights and reform.  My final project is going to examine course material through the lens of the school-to-prison pipeline.  Knowing how I learn/engage best, I will complete a service learning project.

Before I talk about the project itself, I wanted to address why diversity and social justice is integral to this issue, why it matters to me, and potential ways in which social work (as a whole) can be more effective in addressing this social issue.  After I lay the groundwork for why this topic is relevant and necessary to explore through a social justice lens, I will detail how the service project will be executed.

In all that I learn in my graduate classes, I keep tying it back to my concerns around zero-tolerance in education policy.  Having taught in middle and high school inner-city settings serving minority teens, student misbehavior is often met by administration and local police with a punitive mindset.  When the zero-tolerance policy was written into law in the 1990s, the hope was to make schools a “safer place.”  Despite the fact that it only addresses serious threats (weapons/safety/drugs), there has been a growing loose interpretation of the policy, or “gray area,” around what is deemed a “safety threat.”

This has major implications for why diversity and social justice are integral to the issue.  Those in opposition to the zero-tolerance policy find that in many urban districts, there has been an increase in harsh punishment and a rise in juvenile criminalization.  There is a plethora of statistical evidence to back up this claim.  Furthermore, there is a clear uneven distribution of suspensions and expulsions, correlated to race.  This creates a certainty around how harsh punishment on misbehavior has tinted the lens of education inequality.

Zero-tolerance has called into question if schools are actually made safer, as it is not creating a lasting solution, but short-term, divisive answers.  The fact that children can be criminalized for things like “willful defiance” and “disrupting school activities” is appalling.  It is further upsetting because students who need more support and alternative ways to learn and grow are shut down by this system.  These harsh practices force students to resent authority and distrust the education system, thereby increasing rates for drop-outs, unemployment and crime.  This cycle perpetuates racism, economic inequality, health disparities, etc.

Teaching over 450 students in three years, I am fortunate to have crossed paths with so many remarkable, resilient individuals.  I have witnessed, however, the deeply rooted effects caused from the injustices they face due to norms on culture and race.  These injustices naturally follow students into their learning spaces and create an even bigger challenge and sense of unsafety in overcoming societal obstacles.

Advocating for this concern is so important to me because I want to invest my time and energy in creating platforms for local school boards and administrations to brainstorm and instill more restorative practices to keep schools safer and reduce punitive practices for minority communities.  By now, one would envision that society has caught onto the facts presented by scientists (brain development is not complete until the age of 25) and community information (growing rates of teen incarcerations and an increase in the education gap).  Alas, no.  This is where social workers as a whole can step in.  Groups that advocate for students, like the Student Rights Project (under the umbrella of Student Advisory Council) call on social workers to join their cause and be a resource to families and communities.

In order to make these changes and advocate for these policies in my career, I aim to engage in a service project with the Student Rights Project.  I will be working closely with the on-campus organization this semester as a trained advocate for families and students seeking support with school disciplinary concerns.  By working with students from schools of social work, law, and education, the goal is to provide counseling, legal advice, and classroom lenses to each individual case.  My role as a volunteer will be to counsel students and families that are facing the backlash of a harsh, punitive education system.  My job will range from being a mouthpiece for clients, providing resources, seeking out avenues to problem-solve, assist in legal and education aspects, and to help build skills in the student to create self-sustainable advocacy.

The goal of my service project is to get direct access to members of the community that have been punished by zero-tolerance and are at-risk for entering the school-to-prison pipeline. By working to empower children and teens enrolled in public/charter schools throughout Southeast Michigan, my intention is to “secure their right to an education by helping parents and students advocate for themselves before, during, and after school disciplinary hearings” (SRP Home Page). I would also like to learn about how to bring awareness to the cause so that I can have more than just a learned experience in this process.

I intend to keep a detailed journal, take pictures (those that are allowed, of course), get interviews, etc. as part of my evidence for my work.  I will use the sources and theoretical frameworks presented in class to inform my knowledge base.  I will present a written report and thorough analysis in the final report to provide a clear picture of how this social justice concern is of the utmost importance to myself and all social workers.

I am very excited about this project!  I cannot wait to get started and dive deep into this work.  Stay tuned for updates on how it is going…. 🙂

8 thoughts on “Final Project Proposal: Battling the Injustices of the School-to-Prison Pipeline through Service

  1. Shelby's Spot says:

    I’m so excited to hear about your service project Noreen! It is evident that you have a lot of passion about this topic (and experience with the issue as well), and I’m sure this passion will shine through throughout your service learning time. The school-to-prison-pipeline is also a topic that I feel very passionately about addressing, so I’m looking forward to hearing and learning more about it from your experience!


  2. lizbehonest26 says:


    This project seems like it will be a great source of continuing to critically engage with a system and a population you are already very passionate and knowledgable about. I’m eager to know more about what you learn and how people articulate the school-to-prison pipeline and the zero-tolerance policies and how those manifest in the lived reality of youth. It also seems like this project will be challenging and frustrating, as you have already experienced. Enjoy the project, and don’t forget to take breaks from these systems that can be so out of touch.



  3. Kelsey Corr says:


    Your passion in advocating for students who are at-risk of entering the school-to-prison-pipeline is refreshing! I believe the experiences you have as a teacher who has worked with this particular population will serve as a huge strength to you as you embark on this journey to create positive change for transitional-age youth. It is social workers like you who inspire me to keep moving forward with these difficult but important missions! I am excited to hear about your experiences!




  4. ranasreport says:


    I really enjoyed reading about your passion on this specific issue. It is great to have someone who has worked in the field of education being such a great advocate for these at-risk students. I commend educators like you for really investing your time when working with students and helping them create positive changes for themselves. I hope you have a great experience while you volunteer and I can’t wait to read more about your findings.

    Best of luck,



  5. betweenarockandahardplace2017 says:

    I don’t know if this might be something you would want to do, but my mentor from the SSW is really into the school to prison pipeline. If you want to link up with her and pick her brain about what she knows or to find additional resources, I’d be happy to help you establish that connection.


  6. Mike Spencer says:

    What a terrific project, Noreen! I’m excited as well and would love to learn from you about this topic more. I believe greatly in the restorative justice movement and would like to see how this might fit into your project. While it may not be your focus, do think about the role of schools as a colonizing and assimilating institution. I believe this affects how students see schools as relevant or not, which can lead to disciplinary problems. Good luck with this!


  7. rotty28 says:

    Looking forward to seeing this project unfold in the coming weeks. Did you happen to attend the Fauri Conference: Raising the Age on September 29th? While the focus was not on the school-to-prison pipeline and/or zero-tolerance policies, lots of relevant info was discussed. Might be worthwhile to check-out resources online:

    Judge Frank Szymanski of the Wayne County Third Circuit Court Juvenile Division was an outspoken panelist at the conference. I’d encourage you to reach out to him. He’s publicly endorsed the Youth in Prison Legislation Package, and he has also founded several youth deterrent programs in the Detroit area.

    There were many powerful and humbling stats presented throughout the conference, but here are three (of many) lines that stood out to me in regards to your project:

    (1) “44% of juvenile crime happens during the school day…”
    (2) “Zero tolerance equals zero intelligence.”
    (3) We need to reframe our thinking and discourse. We should not be asking what have youth done? No…we should be asking what has been done to them…

    Deborah LaBelle might also be a good contact for you. She is an attorney, writer and advocate. Some of the many positions LaBelle holds: Director of the Juvenile Like Without Parole Initiative for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan and Coordinator of Michigan’s Juvenile Mitigation Access Committee. She has continuously fought to change policies affecting men, women and children in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

    Would love to talk more about this project. We need to be much smarter, not tougher on crime. Good luck!


  8. 01153blog says:

    Wow, what a great project idea. I look forward to seeing the final product and learning more about this topic. Your writing is impeccable, and the passion you feel for this social justice issue is evident and admirable. I wish you luck! Iliani


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