ACLU of Michigan Releases Report Identifying School-to-Prison Pipeline in State

Detroit –The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today released a comprehensive report entitled “Reclaiming Michigan’s Throwaway Kids: Students Trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which documents a trend amongst school districts to enforce severe disciplinary policies and practices that push children permanently out of the classroom without regard for the long-term impact. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the national trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, our children.

“This report provides critical information for all those committed to improving our public schools in the state – it documents and analyzes data that shows how the frequent use of suspensions and expulsions contributes to our high drop-out rate and how those suspension practices hit black students the hardest, putting them on a high-risk path to incarceration,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan’s executive director. “We cannot deal with the corrections budget until we deal with the ‘pipeline’ leading from the educational system to prison.”

Information within the report was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to school districts across the state, interviews with students, parents, and educators; information obtained while providing advocacy work to students facing discipline; scholarly reports and studies; legal analyses; and information collected while providing aggrieved students with legal representation.

Through its research the ACLU found that disproportionate discipline towards African American students was apparent in the majority of the school districts examined in the study. For instance, in the Ann Arbor School District during the 2006/07 school year, black students accounted for 18 percent of a secondary school student population, but they received 58 percent of suspensions. This trend is reflected in school districts statewide.

“In school district after school district, from one end of the state to another, we found that black kids are consistently suspended in numbers that are considerably disproportionate to their representation in the various student populations,” said Mark P. Fancher, ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project staff attorney and principal author of the report. “More alarming still are studies we examined that show that the behavior of black kids and white kids is essentially the same, and black kids are still kicked out of school proportionately more often. This is true regardless of socio-economic factors and geography.”

Studies show that when students are repeatedly suspended, they are substantially at greater risk of leaving school altogether. In at least one study of the Grand Rapids School District, 31 percent of students with three or more suspensions before spring semester of their sophomore year dropped out, while only 6 percent of students with no history of suspensions dropped out. Although there are few efforts made to track the whereabouts of students who leave school, 68 percent of Michigan’s prisoners are identified as high school dropouts.

The study found that one significant contributor in Michigan’s school-to-prison pipeline is the overreaching lack of due process. Unfortunately, due process policies and procedures to remove students from Michigan’s public schools vary from district to district. To combat this problem, the ACLU recommends uniform statewide procedural protocols for the discipline of students that ensure students accused of misconduct have full and fair opportunities to explain their actions and otherwise defend themselves.

In addition, Michigan’s “zero tolerance” expulsion law, which is broader in scope than federal law requires, also contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. Federal law requires that states receiving federal education funds must enact a law mandating one-year expulsions of students who posses firearms. However, Michigan’s law goes a step further and requires the expulsion of students who possess a “dangerous weapon.” In many instances, well behaved, unsuspecting students have faced serious consequences for carrying items that do not necessarily reflect this definition.

“As an attorney, I am highly trained to deal with the loss of rights and conflict resolution, but even I was at a loss when my daughter’s school nearly expelled her for bringing an eyebrow shaper to class,” said Desiree Ferguson of Detroit. “As a criminal defense expert, I knew that the charge against my daughter was unsustainable as a matter of law. But she could still have suffered serious and enduring consequences from the accusation if I had not been armed with the necessary resources to intervene immediately and fight zealously for her. I can only imagine what parents with fewer resources encounter. By coming forward and by being a part of this report, I am not only advocating for my daughter, but for all the parents who cannot or don’t know that they can fight too.”

The ACLU recommends amending Michigan’s expulsion law to conform more strictly to the scope of federal requirements by making only firearm offenses subject to mandatory automatic expulsions. In addition, school administrators should explore alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including restorative practices to correct the problem rather than punish the deed. Other ACLU recommendations address alternative education and offer guidelines on when to involve the criminal justice system with disciplinary matters.

To download a supplemental appendix of data that is not featured in the report, click here.

Related Issues: