“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…. 🙂