Prioritizing Equity in the American Education System: A Service Project Working Against the School-to-Prison Pipeline (504 Final Project)

PREZI: 504 Service Project Presentation

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.



Ameur, M. (2016). Restorative practices: righting the wrongs of exclusionary school discipline. School Inequality: Challenges and Solutions, 50, 1-28. Retrieved from WestLaw Online Library

Bogos, P. M. (1996). Expelled-No Excuses-No Exceptions-Michigan’s Zero-Tolerance Policy in Response to School Violence: MCLA Section 380.1311. U. Det. Mercy L. Rev.74, 357. Retrieved from

Capatosto, K. (2015). School discipline policy: updates, insights, and future directions. Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 3-4. Retrieved from

Curran, F.C. (2016) Estimating the effect of state zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, racial discipline gaps, and student behavior. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38 (4), 647-668. doi: 10.3101/0162373716652728

Daly, B. P., Hildenbrand, A. K., Haney-Caron, E., Goldstein, N. E. S., Galloway, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2016). Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline: Strategies to reduce the risk of school-based zero tolerance policies resulting in juvenile justice involvement. In K. Heilbrun, D. DeMatteo, & N. E. S. Goldstein (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology series. APA handbook of psychology and juvenile justice (pp. 257-275).

DPS (2013). Students’ Rights, Responsibilities & Code of Conduct. Detroit Public Schools. July, 2013. Retrieved from

DPS (2015). Student Assistance and Intervention Programs: Student Code of Conduct, Frequently Asked Questions for Parents. Detroit Public Schools. Retrieved from

Dunbar, C. (2015). For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Students’ Future. ACLU & Michigan State University. Retrieved from

Gordon-Ellis, J.N. (2016). Suspensiosn by race and reason in California’s urban school districts: A comparative study on suspensions of African American and Latino students before and after the passage of assembly bill (AB) 420 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Claremont Graduate University via ProQuest (10247492)

Jones, K. (2013). #zerotolerance #keepingupwiththetimes: How federal zero tolerance policies failed to promote educational success, deter juvenile consequences, and confront new social media concerns in public schools. Journal of Law and Education: Chalk Talks, 42 (4), 739-749. doi: 10.1177/0888406411412396

Jones, T. & Shen, X. (2003). An analysis of California’s zero tolerance policy. Retrieved from

Kang-Brown, J., Trone, J., Fratello, J. & Daftary-Kapur, T. (2013) A generation later: what we’ve learned about zero tolerance in schools. VERA Institute of Justice, 1-10. Retrieved from

Lewis, C. W., Butler, B. R., Bonner, I., Fred, A., & Joubert, M. (2010). African American male discipline patterns and school district responses resulting impact on academic achievement: Implications for urban educators and policy makers. Journal of African American Males in Education, 1(1), 7-25. Retrieved from

MASSP and MASB (2003). A Guide to Suspensions and Expulsions in the Michigan Public Schools [Booklet]. Michigan: Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and Michigan Association of School Boards. Retrieved from

Monroe, C. R. (2006). African American boys and the discipline gap: Balancing educators’ uneven hand. Educational Horizons, 102-111. Retrieved from

NASW Code of Ethics. (2017). NASW code of ethics (Revised by NASW del assembly). National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from

McNeal, L. & Dunbar Jr., C. (2010). In the eyes of the beholder: urban student perceptions of zero tolerance policy.  Urban Education, 45 (3), 293-311. doi: 10.1177/0042085910364475

McNeal, L.R. (2016). Managing our blind spot: the role of bias in the school to prison pipeline. Arizona State Law Journal, 48, 1-21. Retrieved from WestLaw Online Data Base

Rice, S. (2009). Education for toleration in an era of zero tolerance school policies: a deweyan analysis. Education Studies, 45, 556-571. doi:10.1080/00131940903338308

Robbins, C. G. (2005).  Zero tolerance and the politics of racial injustice. The Journal of Negro Education, 74, 2-17. Retrieved from

Skiba, R.J. (2014). The failure of zero tolerance. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(4), 27-33. Retrieved  from

Stone-Palmquist, P. (2004). Michigan’s Brand of Zero Tolerance: Is there another way? The Michigan Journal of Public Affairs, 1, 1-20. Retrieved from

Triplett, N.P., Allen, A. & Lewis, C.W. (2014). Zero tolerance, school shootings, and the post-brown quest for equity in discipline policy: an examination of how urban minorities are punished for white suburban violence. The Journal of Negro Education, 83 (3), 352-370. Retrieved at




7 thoughts on “Prioritizing Equity in the American Education System: A Service Project Working Against the School-to-Prison Pipeline (504 Final Project)

  1. Shelby's Spot says:

    Hi Noreen!
    If there was a “love” button on here, I would definitely hit that instead of like! You demonstrated so much passion and energy into this project, which really shows in the prezi you made. The school-to-prison pipeline is such an important topic to focus on, as it affects so many vulnerable youth throughout the country. I enjoyed getting to hear about your past experiences in the classroom (loved the running man challenge), and you brought a lot of past experiences into your current work. As you pointed out, restorative practices are extremely necessary in a school system that continues to target oppressed and minority groups. Youth need advocates to fight for equal treatment within school settings. Also, I really appreciated that you noted the importance of after school programs. As someone who currently helps run an after school program at my field placement, I can testify that they truly do impact youth positively.
    I can’t say enough good things about your project!


  2. lizbehonest26 says:

    Noreen, what a cool project you did! I love the Neutral Zone and the work they do, but have not spent too much time thing about how their programming relates to ZTP or the prison pipeline; thanks for adding that new perspective for me. I also appreciated how you mentioned having more proactive programs rather than reactive ones. I agree with you that these types of programs are the key to restorative justice.


  3. Kelsey Corr says:

    I had no idea that either of these programs existed but the models for both are amazing! Your volunteer work with the Student Rights Program was very interesting. That is so cool that you were able to make such a difference for that kid! What was it like working with the law students and team members from other professions as a social worker? Also, is the program only for graduate students? Anyways, you talked about some much needed changes in the education system, and you discussed some nice solutions. I agree that a person in environment perspective and restorative justice practices are both key aspects to ending the school-to-prison-pipeline.




  4. RogelioCastro says:


    As someone who attended and worked in schools with predominately students of color I really appreciated your final project. Unfortunately, I witnessed first hand the effects zero tolerance policies have for students, in particular males of color. For many students of color with low social economical status education is key to having better opportunities. However, it is evident that policies like these are making it 10x harder from them to even to make to high school. The school to prison pipeline is an large issue with so many factors and aspects. Nonetheless, making the players involved, especially those most vulnerable, like students begin to realize the political, educational and social systems they are part of is a great way to begin deconstructing the issue. Thank you so much for this!



  5. ranasreport says:


    The student advocacy organizations that you volunteered with sound amazing and it seems like you had a great learning experience during your time there. Everything you have learned is definitely showcased through out your final project. Your Prezi PowerPoint had some interesting statistics regarding the student-to-prison pipeline. One statistic that shocked me was in the Expulsion Numbers in Top 10 chart. It said that 1 in 10 students in Detroit were expelled in 2013-2014. This is definitely due to the increased ease of punitive punishments. Also I really enjoyed learning about why this issue is so important to you. You are clearly very passionate about how these school policies are affecting the students.

    Great work,



  6. jungtaechoi says:


    Thanks for addressing this issue, and I am proud of you volunteering for this.
    As you mentioned, most of the victims of this corrupt policy are minority groups who have been detained without proper reasons. I especially love your main point that the Federal Zero Tolerance policy was designed to protect children from danger, yet since this policy does not have specific regulations, it has been abused. Specifically, African American students are more likely to be the victims of this policy. I think it is a serious problem because they are still young, and once they are excluded from class, then they will lose educational opportunities. It is absolutely horrible and should be abolished. Again, thanks for addressing this issue.
    I enjoyed your Prezi powerpoint which is amazing!
    Well done!

    Jungtae Choi


  7. closethehealthgap2017 says:

    From day 1, you have gone above and beyond the call. Your final project is comprehensive, personal, theory-driven, and addresses a critical social justice issue. As it was a subject I don’t know much about, the data was very surprising to me, particularly suspension and expulsion rates. Your effort and insight to not only volunteer but truly use this as a learning opportunity for you was exceptional. Your prezi was also well organized and beautifully presented. Loved the video challenge. Your creativity is also a major strength and willingness to step outside the box is what makes you special. I will ask the faculty to clone you because if we could have a force of social workers like you, I know we could change the world! All the best, Mike


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