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Fighting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

PHOTO: The Student Advocacy Center of Michigan is among the groups fighting to reform school discipline policies to keep the most vulnerable kids in the classroom and out of the criminal-justice system. Photo credit: Larry Farr/Morguefile.
PHOTO: The Student Advocacy Center of Michigan is among the groups fighting to reform school discipline policies to keep the most vulnerable kids in the classroom and out of the criminal-justice system. Photo credit: Larry Farr/Morguefile.
September 23, 2014

YPSILANTI, Mich. - It's supposed to be a safe place to learn and grow, but some youth advocates say in Michigan there is a growing tendency to criminalize rather than educate children, which is why they are working to fight what's been dubbed the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan and a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Michigan, says policies such as zero tolerance discipline and mandatory expulsions and suspensions often push the most at-risk kids right out of school and into the criminal-justice system.

"Michigan, in particular, has sort of gone beyond what the federal intent certainly was, which was not to allow kids to have guns in schools," she says. "We have actually one of the harshest and overly broad discipline codes in the country."

The Gun Free Schools Act of 1990 mandated zero tolerance for firearms and referrals to law enforcement for violators, but Michigan has since adopted legislation requiring suspension for many other offenses.

Stone-Palmquist acknowledges school discipline is difficult, and often requires split-second decisions on the part of teachers and administrators, but she feels it's important to move toward a more nuanced approach.

"What is the student trying to tell us?" she asks. "Really understand the family situation - was there a crisis in the family? Almost always, the students I see, there's been something going on either in school, with their peers, or something going on at home. So how can we provide support?"

She adds that the job of adults is to give kids the space to make mistakes and help them learn from those choices.

"I have kids in school, I want them to be safe, but I don't actually think we're creating a climate of safety when all we're doing is pushing kids out and not inviting them back in," she says. "That's not teaching them how to make better choices. "

Stone-Palmquist praises discipline techniques such as the "Restorative Approach," which brings together all those affected to work to repair relationships. Several Michigan schools have taken a pledge called "Solutions Not Suspensions," affirming a willingness to re-evaluate discipline policies.

NASW Michigan is actively working toward closing the school-to-prison pipeline, and putting an end to zero tolerance.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI