by JEFF GERRITT / Detroit Free Press
Walking into central-city schools, through metal detectors and security officers, feels a little like walking into one of Michigan’s 34 state prisons. Sometimes I think that’s what we’re preparing kids for. The school-to-prison pipeline starts with suspensions and expulsions that lead to idleness, falling back and dropping out. Nearly 80% of prisoners listed truancy as their first offense, reports the U.S. Department of Justice.
Zero-tolerance policies and pressures to push out lower-performing students have boosted suspensions and expulsions nationwide. With more public safety and police officers in schools, misconducts like fighting and disorderly conduct often get resolved in juvenile court instead of the principal’s office. A recent ACLU report — “Reclaiming Michigan’s Throwaway Kids: Students Trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline” — also found far higher rates of suspensions and expulsions for African-American students than for whites.
During the 2009-10 year, Detroit Public Schools recommended nearly 29,000 suspensions and expulsions, including 742 expulsions of up to 180 school days, 57 long-term suspensions of five to 20 school days, and 27,870 short-term suspensions of one to three days, DPS documents show. That’s in a district with 90,000 students.
With dropout rates of up to 80% for black males, those numbers are dangerously high. More truancy prevention and peer mediation programs would help. Bishop Edgar Vann’s MADE Men program, with trained volunteers for school patrols, is another low-cost program that should be replicated to keep more students in school.
Without early and consistent intervention, there will be many more students like 10-year-old Javion Lawson, out of school for eight months last year.
In April, Lawson, then a third-grader at Phoenix Academy, was suspended and then, after a May 11 hearing, expelled. Readmitted in November, Javion returned to school in December and now attends Neinas Elementary School in southwest Detroit. Because he had a 3.0 grade-point average before expulsion, he was promoted to the fourth grade. He will be evaluated for special education.
According to the district’s Department of Public Safety, Javion threatened a music teacher in April and hit him in the arm. No weapons were involved. Javion told me the teacher had first grabbed him and put him in a chokehold, after Javion had been horseplaying. Javion had been suspended twice before — for one day in January and three days in March of 2010 — for fighting and insubordination.
Anthony Graham, a coordinator for Southwest Solutions, a nonprofit agency that worked with the family to get Javion back in school and on track, said the school acted harshly. “It was overkill, especially when you look at his academic record,” Graham told me. “I’ve never seen or heard of a kid expelled for what he was accused of doing.”
During the eight months Javion was out of school, his mother, Denise Lawson, 29, a janitor on medical leave, did her best to help her son read and keep up his academic skills. But Javion started hanging with older gang members, even when they stole some tires, putting him at risk of arrest. “He wasn’t listening to me,” Lawson said. “He had a lot of time on his hands, and he was doing pretty much what he wanted.”
After expelling Javion, school officials said he was eligible to attend the Hancock Preparatory Center, an alternative school for expelled students nearly two miles from Javion’s home. Lawson said she couldn’t get Javion there because she didn’t have a car and had just broken her ankle. She tried to enroll Javion in a charter school, Cesar Chavez, which provided school transportation, but the district could not produce Javion’s academic records.
At an expulsion hearing on Nov. 23, Javion apologized for his behavior. School officials also gave Javion a verbal apology, with one acknowledging they had failed him.
With the help of his mother and stepfather, Devon Heath, 24, Javion, who wants to be a doctor, should be fine. Since returning to school, he has earned a 2.7 grade-point average, though he still has behavior problems.
Other kids like him might not be as lucky. The ACLU of Michigan is working with U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and others to make policy changes to keep kids in school, including an end to inflexible zero-tolerance laws and establishing uniform statewide procedures for discipling students.
Without help, the children we give up on now will continue to fill our prisons.