No to youth criminalization

April 15, 2013

Detroit high school students are taking a lead in challenging the New Jim Crow and the school-to-prison pipeline, write Aaron Petcoff and Marie Buck.

"FREE MY sisters! Free my brothers!" These words echoed off the walls of the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Detroit on March 23 as a crowd of 300 Detroit Public Schools (DPS) students and their supporters rallied to protest the school-to-prison pipeline.

The protest, organized by Youth Voice, an organization based in Detroit, involved students from at least 10 different schools. Protesters drew attention to the funneling of Detroit students from schools into the prison system, demanded an end to punitive "zero-tolerance" policies, and called for increases in funding for public education.

"More youth are going to prison than are going into college and getting a higher education," said Michael Reynolds, a sophomore at Cody High School Detroit Institute of Technology. "We want to get rid of 'zero tolerance' because kids are getting suspended for having the wrong color shirt on, or for looking a certain way, or standing a certain way."

"Zero tolerance" was introduced in the mid-1980s. While the policy originally only covered guns in schools, it has been expanded by federal, state and local governments, allowing school administrators to remove students from school for everything from dress code violations to giving Midol to a classmate.

Hundreds of Detroit high school students and their supporters rallied against the school-to-prison pipeline
Hundreds of Detroit high school students and their supporters rallied against the school-to-prison pipeline (SW)

Black students suffer the most from zero-tolerance policies. While the term "zero tolerance" makes it sound as though such rules are strictly applied across the board, the policy leaves decisions about how to address a perceived discipline problem to individual administrators and teachers.

If a teacher thinks a student seems like a "bad kid," then that student is less likely to be told to, for example, tuck her or his shirt in, and more likely to be sent to the principal's office and suspended.

Nationally, in schools with zero-tolerance policies, students with disabilities, Black students and poor students are all suspended at several times the rate of other students.

Metro Detroit is heavily segregated, so it should come as no surprise that Michigan is ranked fifth in the country for racial disparity in high school suspensions, according to a study conducted by the University of California-Los Angeles. One out of every four Black students in Michigan was suspended in the 2009-2010 academic year, compared to approximately one out of every 17 white students.

In DPS, the rate of suspension is even higher. In 2011, 25,534 students were suspended in DPS. That's one out of every three of the school system's approximately 70,000 students.

Once suspended, students often find it difficult to keep up with their schoolwork. "It makes me feel like they don't care about my education," 15-year old Rasul Zakie, a freshman at Henry Ford High School, told reporters. "The curriculum runs really fast so when you miss a day, you miss quizzes and tests and it's really hard to catch up." Many students drop out of school altogether as a result.

This phenomenon also combines with standardized testing to create a strange conflict of interest. In a properly funded, properly staffed school with a strong union, teachers and principals would presumably use suspension only as a last resort. They would want students in school, and suspension would be a disciplinary measure to be used in only the most extreme circumstances. The goal is to teach the students, and for that the students must be in school.

But since the beginning of Obama's Race to the Top program, Michigan schools have gotten federal money for getting rid of teacher seniority and replacing it with a system in which teachers can be laid off based on student test scores. Furthermore, low-test scores are often cited as a pretext for closing entire schools and firing all faculty.

In a system in which teachers' jobs are contingent on student test scores, teachers and administrators have an incentive to push anyone they think will not do well on a test out of school. While it would be difficult to gauge exactly how the fear of low tests scores affects individual teachers' disciplinary decisions, it's obvious that tying test scores to teacher pay or employment fundamentally changes the student-teacher relationship.

INCREASINGLY, STUDENTS face punishment in school not just from teachers, but also from the uniformed police officers patrolling the hallways.

While schools are laying off teachers, social workers, and counselors, they are generally hiring more police. Detroit schools have their own police department with deputized officers, a new $5.6 million Command Center, 96 police officers, and three police dogs.

Additionally, other groups patrol the schools: security guards from a private security company that DPS has hired as well as several specifically all-male security volunteer groups that work in conjunction with the police and that were trained by former Detroit police chiefs.

Naturally, this policing results in frivolous punishments for students. In 2009, for instance, 49 students at Central High School in Detroit were arrested by police officers for "roaming the halls instead of being in class during school hours," according to DPS officials.

Additionally, for-profit companies are making money off of the presence of a militarized police force in schools. Last year, DPS students were welcomed back with new state-of-the-art, video-monitored metal detectors. Students must pass through the metal detectors and be patted down by police, creating a line outside of schools that can take students a half an hour to pass through.

The same year, DPS spent $18 million on camera and alarm upgrades. The district also spent money on a new badge system that requires officers to "immediately [challenge] anyone without a badge."

All of this new equipment was installed despite reports that violent crimes in DPS had dropped over the previous year--suggesting that this equipment is less about student safety and more about criminalizing students. The new equipment and excessive police presence allow Detroit politicians to pay lip service to the problems of Detroit schools--but without actually doing anything to fix them.

The problems are real: under the state-appointed emergency manager, class-size limits have skyrocketed to 61 students in high schools, for classrooms built to seat 35. Turai Finley, a Youth Voice activist from Henry Ford High School, complained that DPS hires permanent substitute teachers to teach classes and that the schools offer no challenging curriculum to prepare students for college.

The schools need a massive increase in funding--but the response from the emergency manager has been to treat Detroit students as the problem and to criminalize them, rather than giving students and teachers the resources they desperately need.

BUT STUDENTS, parents and teachers are fighting back and demanding more.

In March 2012, students and parents organized a boycott of classes at Denby High School to protest its annexation into the Educational Achievement Authority school district, a state-run school district with ties to the pro-charter Broad Foundation.

Later that month, students at Fredrick Douglass Academy--a DPS school--walked out to protest understaffing. Parents told reporters that students were left sitting in the gym and cafeteria for hours throughout the school day because the school didn't have enough teachers. The walkout resulted in suspensions for all of the 50 students involved.

In April 2012, over 300 students at Western International and Southwestern high schools walked out to protest school closures.

Teachers, too, have also been fighting back. In February, teachers, counselors, and social workers at Cesar Chavez Academy, one of Michigan's largest charter schools, voted overwhelmingly (88-39) to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers union--forming the first union at a Michigan charter school.

The youth-led march held by Youth Voice on March 23 marked another step for the movement against the destruction of public education and the New Jim Crow.

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