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Using FOIA Law in Detroit Education Reform

POST BY Rodd Monts Field Director

Information is the currency of democracy. 

First spoken by President Thomas Jefferson in the 19th Century, those words will forever resonate with me because of their importance to preserving justice for those whose freedoms are frequently imperiled. Most often, those people are poor or are people of color. Or they are individuals with disabilities and others who regularly face institutionalized barriers.

As part of the ACLU of Michigan’s ongoing campaign to address the school-to-prison pipeline, I decided a few years ago to examine the impact of police in K-12 schools on things like arrest rates, graduation rates, and school safety. In other words, does the presence of police in schools improve school climate and foster better academic achievement? We first needed an adequate picture.

My initial challenge was a lack of data on the number of times students are referred to, or arrested by, school police.  There are no state-level data tracking requirements, and local district stats are scarce. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, more than 242,000 students across the nation were referred to law enforcement and about 96,000 children were arrested in 2012. But we wanted to see how districts in Michigan compared, to create a snapshot of what was happening in a particular community.

We tried to gather data from a number of Michigan districts. However, at the time, none of the districts we contacted routinely collected data on arrests, nor did they analyze the figures in an effort to reduce students’ contact with the justice system. So we approached Detroit Public Schools, both because it has an organized police department and because officials there have been cooperative with statistics in the past.

The Freedom of Information Act request we filed was a simple one (or so we thought). We initially asked in 2012 for data on the number of students suspended, expelled, and referred to either the Detroit Public Schools Police Department or the Detroit Police Department. For more than a year we worked with the district to get a complete response to the request. But after multiple delays and partial, unjustified denials of our request more than a year later we found ourselves still short of the information we needed.

In 2014, we submitted another request and were hopeful that this second attempt would produce better results. Again, we received only a partial response—although this time the district did include in that batch of documents the forms used to capture the very same information on police involvement that DPS claimed was nonexistent. 

And that is what led to an unnecessarily long and costly legal tussle

The data we were ultimately able to get showed that there were 1,425 arrests in DPS between 2010 and 2012 and that most of those incidents did not involve serious violence, weapons or drugs. The findings were published in our 2015 report, For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Students’ Future, by Dr. Christopher Dunbar Jr. of Michigan State University.  

“Reevaluating the role of law enforcement in schools so that student discipline is not policed” is one of the key recommendations presented in that report. If police must be in schools, they should be there to protect students and staff from serious violence, as opposed to serving as disciplinarians. 

I began my education in DPS and will always cherish the years I spent as a student at Monica Primary, Holcomb Elementary, and Emerson Elementary-Middle schools. I empathize with the administrators and teachers in DPS who are perpetually struggling to do more with less for the children to whom they are committed to educating. 

Our education equity work is about improving outcomes. We do that at times by shining light on issues that negatively impact students in an effort to address them and mitigate the harm done to those children. The FOIA law provides us a critical tool needed to do so. And we will continue to use that for the benefit of children whenever we find the need – even if it takes a fight.

If police must be in schools, they should be there to protect students and staff from serious violence, as opposed to serving as disciplinarians.

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