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Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline

School should be a safe space for students. But for many young black men, the educational system is an inadvertent path to jail. Will new books, television shows and initiatives help stem the tide?

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Because he's a young African-American man, Trevon Stapleton is beginning to feel like an endangered species.

The 16-year-old Detroiter is fully aware that one in three Black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Meanwhile, one in six Latino males will do the same. Stapleton also knows about a national trend referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline," which funnels an alarmingly high number of African-American males out of public schools via suspensions and expulsions and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Stapleton, who will be entering his junior year at Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody, is not only fighting to avoid such a fate; he's working to improve the odds for other African-American teens.

Nine months ago, he joined a group called Youth Voice, a Harriet Tubman Center organization and affiliate that encourages Detroit teenagers to unite, become empowered, and inspired and effect change. As one of its platforms, Youth Voice is working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Department of Human Services, politicians and more to convince school districts to utilize restorative methods when suspending students for low-level offenses such as failing to conform to strict dress-code policies.

"I want to help my community," Stapleton says. "I don't totally disagree with suspensions—especially when kids fight, bring weapons to school or do something illegal. But I disagree with severe suspensions for uniforms or not wearing the right-colored shoes."

Youth Voice

Stapleton and Youth Voice are doing what they can in and around Detroit. But programs such as this also are part of a national groundswell of advocates, educators and entertainers committed to finding solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline—a frustrating and complicated epidemic that marginalizes low-income teens and sets them up for failure and confinement. Last month, in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, President Barack Obama called for an increase in similar national initiatives to bolster Black boys.

In March, 450 people attended Youth Voice's group rally to reduce school suspensions and increase state funding for restorative practices in schools. A month later, Youth Voice held a school-to-prison pipeline panel at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law

"The rally and the panel gave us platforms to urge schools to cut back on suspensions, especially those connected to insubordination and broken uniform polices," says Kayla Mason, Youth Voice director and lead organizer. "We're actually trying to convince schools to utilize more restorative methods and use suspensions as opportunities to have conversations with at-risk students instead of simply kicking them out.

"It's a vicious cycle. If a student is suspended once, they are likely to be suspended again. Those multiple suspensions lead to bad grades and failed courses, and that's when a lot of students drop out of school and turn to crime."

Youth Voice will be featured on MTV's "True Life" documentary series this month. Titled "True Life: Detroit Rising," the installment will spotlight young Detroiters, like Stapleton, doing positive things for their communities. Elsewhere on the small screen, TV One has launched a new series called "Save My Son." Renowned educator, speaker and author Dr. Steve Perry hosts the show, which attempts to course correct the lives of young men in peril with the help of celebrity mentors.

Over at Oprah Winfrey's OWN network, relationship expert Iyanla Vanzant drew the correlation between fatherless sons and the industrial prison complex on an episode of "Oprah's Lifeclass." "The fatherless son … there are hundreds of thousands of them all over the world," Vanzant says during the installment. "Fatherless sons who never had a man affirm you. Never had a man acknowledge (you). Never had a man accept you as you are."

The Terrifying Transition

Television isn't the only medium addressing the horrific rate at which young African-American males are transitioning from classrooms to prison cells. Actor Malik Yoba has been endorsing the bestselling and self-published book "Unconditional Forgiveness: Lessons on Letting Go to Build Better Relationships" by author Sedrik R. Newbern. In the book, Newbern shares how growing up without a father impacted his life and explores the evolution of his relationship with his father and how they moved past pains to develop an unbreakable bond.

"Fatherless boys are more likely to drop out of school and are locked up at a higher propensity," Newbern says. "Growing up without a father, I knew I could fall victim and I knew I had to beat the odds."

Newbern has also heard a number of stories where fatherless sons follow in their imprisoned fathers' footsteps and "meet for the first time in prison," he says. And then there are those youngsters who are just being kids.

"Some kids are being defiant to get attention, and they don't realize they're establishing a downward spiral," Newbern says. " Yes, some of their offenses are blown out of proportion and they are suspended longer than they should be. But in other cases, you have parents who can't be told anything bad about their children. Parents and teachers used to be a team, and they need to work together again."

In terms of advocacy groups, the Children's Defense Fund had a conference this summer for its Cradle to Prison Pipeline Crusade Campaign. The conference set out to spread the word that the majority of fourth graders can't read at grade level, yet states spend about three times as much on prisoners as they do per public school pupil.

"Schools have increased the use of expulsion and suspension as disciplinary practices for minor, nonviolent offenses such as tardiness and are criminalizing children at younger and younger ages," says Raymonde Charles, the Children's Defense Fund press secretary. "Nonviolent offenses that used to result in a visit to the principal's office now often result in suspensions, expulsions and arrests.

"Black boys and girls have higher suspension rates than any of their peers," Charles continues. "Black students are over three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers."

Despite such dismal odds, the Children's Defense Fund is working to reduce detention and incarceration by implementing polices that reduce child poverty, increase access to quality healthcare, expand early childhood development and learning programs, ensure a quality education for all kids, and end school policies that push children out of school.

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