Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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.

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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