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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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Strategizing Against Suspensions

The ACLU of Michigan also is doing its part. In 2009, the organization published a study tracking 41 districts across the state where students were being suspended. Those numbers have only increased for the worst, says Rodd Monts, ACLU of Michigan's field director. "This is especially true in districts where students of color enroll in suburban schools that aren't equipped to deal with them," he says.

Monts added that one of the biggest challenges is organizing grassroots efforts that encourage Michigan schools to lift their zero-tolerance policies in favor of more restorative methodologies that actually address the real issues.

For instance, the state must figure out ways to end undocumented school campaigns that essentially eliminate problem students in favor of improved test scores. There are also socioeconomic implications regarding uniforms. If a child is impoverished and can only afford a few shirts and pairs of pants, there is a strong likelihood that he will fall short when it comes to wearing the required attire day in and day out. In the end, it's often these same lower-income students who get into trouble, get suspended, fall behind and drop out—that is if they aren't expelled first.

"The ACLU of Michigan and groups such as Youth Voice are trying to establish dialogue between public educators and students and their parents to turn the system around," Monts says. "Students and parents have rights, and they have to exercise them." 

This is a lesson Michael Reynolds and his aunt and legal guardian, Sharita Reynolds, learned the hard way. Last school year, Michael got suspended for insubordination at Cody Academy of Public Leadership in Detroit.  With no place to go but home, Michael took the bus and, when he got off, the cops stopped him and ticketed him for truancy. Sharita Reynolds also was ticketed because she's Michael's legal guardian.

Luckily for the 16-year-old and his aunt, he had joined Youth Voice, and the group helped him advocate for himself in court and school. Because he was not in school due to suspension, the tickets were dropped.

"I pursued my rights to the best of my ability," says Michael, who wants to be a lawyer or a politician someday." It's one thing to know about the school-to-prison pipeline pattern; and it's another to suddenly feel like you're a part of it. But I was lucky. I had the right people in my corner." 

Sharita Reynolds legally adopted Michael when his father, Sharita's brother, died a few years ago. She says Youth Voice has helped Michael get his life together, get into less trouble at school and treat her with more respect and appreciation.

"I don't know what we would do without Youth Voice," Sharita Reynolds says. "It keeps him off the streets, it keeps him out of trouble and he gets to see and experience things he normally wouldn't if he weren't in the group."

And then there's Stapleton. He and Michael Reynolds go to different schools within Cody. At Stapleton's branch of the school, the administration practices more compassionate forms of discipline. Instead of kicking students out over uniforms, the school has spare ones, for instance. But other high schools are not as progressive. Stapleton recalls a family friend who kept being suspended and eventually dropped out, broke the law and now is in prison.

"All students should be allowed quality educations," Stapleton says. "I've seen it. Severe suspensions can disrupt futures and destroy dreams."

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