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Wednesday, October 19,2011

Plugging the 'school-to-prison pipeline'

Forum will address state’s racial disparity in suspensions, expulsions

by Lawrence Cosentino

Detroit attorney Rodd Monts stood before a group of about
70 students from the Black Student Union at East Lansing High School in
September and asked for a show of hands: How many of you have been
suspended?


“I was shocked at the number of hands that went up,” he
said. “Most of the kids had been suspended, many of them more than
once.”


Monts, the field director of the American Civil Liberties
Union’s Michigan chapter, was peeking down the hatch of a big piece of
infrastructure nobody wanted to build, but that has managed to snake
across Michigan anyway. A school-to-prison pipeline is sucking a
disproportionate number of minority students out of school, via
suspension or expulsion, and dropping them in the state’s juvenile
justice system, courtrooms and jails.


Students, activists and parents will get together and
strategize ways to plug the pipe at the Foster Community Center
Tuesday. Monts is one of the speakers at the forum, sponsored by the
ACLU and the East Lansing Black Parents Union. 


Attorney Stacy Hickox got a good look at the other end of
the pipeline during her four years with Michigan Protection and
Advocacy Service, where she represented younger people in the juvenile
justice system or in prison. Hickox chairs the ACLU’s branch committee
working on the issue. “I’d say 99 percent of them had been expelled or
suspended from school, and that got them started along the path,”
Hickox said.


Monts said no less than a child’s right to education is at stake.


“It’s one of the most important civil rights issues of
our time,” he declared. “Once you suspend a student, the likelihood of
being suspended again increases. Multiple suspensions increase the
likelihood of dropping out.”


“Push-out” might be a more accurate term than “drop-out,”
according to the ACLU’s 73-page 2009 report documenting “the
disproportionate suspensions of public students of African descent
throughout Michigan.”


Monts said there is no comprehensive statewide data for
Michigan, but he pointed to national data compiled by the ACLU from
state agencies and school districts. Of about 3.25 million kids
suspended every year and over a hundred thousand expelled, black
students are three times more likely to be suspended and three and a
half times more likely to be expelled than white students; Latino
students are 50 percent more likely to be suspended and twice as likely
to be expelled.


Cultural misunderstandings — harmless gestures
interpreted as threats — and flat-out fear of young black males are
among the causes for the disproportion cited in the ACLU report. 


“These populations of students are frequently suspended for things white students aren’t suspended for,” Monts said.


The situation is made worse by rigid application of
“zero-tolerance” rules that dole out suspensions for vague infractions
like verbal assault or insolence.


The disparity is not just between black
and white. Nationally, special education students are twice as likely
to be expelled and suspended, Monts said. LGBT students and pregnant
and parenting teens are also suspended disproportionately, the latter
because of overly harsh tardiness rules.


The ACLU looked at 40 Michigan districts in 2009 and found the state to be roughly in line with national trends.


The most glaring disparities were found in the Ann Arbor
School District in 2006-2007, where black students comprised 18 percent
of the secondary school population but got 58 percent of 817
suspensions. Jackson and Kalamazoo also fared poorly in the study.


Monts singled out Lansing as a district
that has reduced suspensions and “associated administrative costs” by
finding alternative ways to resolve disciplinary flare-ups.


Lansing schools began a pilot program in 2005 that
introduced or stepped up disciplinary tools designed to avoid
suspension, including positive behavior support, peer mediation, teen
courts, and “restorative practices” where students, parents and
teachers get in a circle to hash out what happened and how amends can
be made.


When the pilot school, Pattengill Middle School, reported
a 15 percent drop in suspensions, with two avoided expulsions, the
program was expanded to four more Lansing schools in 2006-2007. 


Diana Rouse, director of elementary education and school
services in Lansing, said the district is compiling current records on
suspension and expulsion rates and the effects of restorative justice
programs.


Monts said Lansing has kept the program staffed with the
help of “really creative” funding, mixing federal Title 1 funds with
outside grants. 


“These are things other districts could do, provided they
are motivated,” he said. An administrator from Lansing Eastern High
School is scheduled to speak on the district’s restorative justice
program at Tuesday’s forum. 


“On Track — Out of Trouble — In School”


7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25


Foster Community Center, 200 N. Foster St., Lansing



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