Zero-tolerance policy creating 'school to prison' pipeline - WNEM TV 5

I-Team

Zero-tolerance policy creating 'school to prison' pipeline

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FLINT, MI (WNEM) -

Dawn Demps said her son's work stands out and displays his creativity on the dining room wall.

"He draws all the time, he wants to be an artist," Demps said.

No doubt about it, Jayanti is very good at drawing cartoons.

Demps said two years ago, his art landed him in hot water.

"He drew a cartoon of him beating up the teacher, of him turning into a super hero," Demps said. "They suspended him for three days, and they wrote him up for threatening a teacher, that was the suspension slip."

"The impact of that the punishment is 10 times worse than sitting down with that child and saying this is the rule and maybe coming up with some type of compromise," Demps said.

As the TV5 I-Team discovered, students are getting thrown out of Flint schools at an astronomical rate.

During the last school year, there were 6,500 students enrolled in the district and 6,800 suspensions.

"I have not seen suspension data that high in any district that we've looked at," said Rodd Monts.

Monts is with the American Civil Liberties Union. He said this is an extreme example of a very big problem in districts across the state.

"This comes as a result of so many things that are subjectively enforced, being included in their list of suspendable offenses," Monts said.

The most recent data for local school districts:

  • Saginaw, 7,800 students enrolled,
    • Nearly 1,100 suspensions
  • Bay City, 8,500 students enrolled 
    • 970 suspensions
  • Davison, 5,500 students enrolled
    • 335 suspensions

Monts said the problem is the worst in urban schools and for the minority students.

"Clearly we cannot suspend or arrest our way to better educational outcomes, and I don't think educators want that either," Monts said.

According to the ACLU, if a child is kicked out of school, suspended or expelled, they’re much more likely to drop out of school. They said being out of school only causes problems.

Experts call it the “school to prison pipeline.” For every three inmates, two did not finish high school.

Monts is working with both state and local education leaders to buck the trend.

State Deputy Superintendent Kyle Guerrant said the policy designed to keep guns out of school is being used too often to throw students out for other non-violent offenses.

"We know we have issues nationally, we see them play themselves out in our state," Guerrant said.

He said the state is now ready to revisit the zero-tolerance policy.

"So our focus in our supportive schools has been, how do we create a more supportive schools environment so that doesn't happen," Guerrant said.

Bilal Tawwab took over as the superintendent of Flint this year and quickly realized things that could be done weren't being done.

"If a child happens to be sent home, I want to be able to say, look at all that we've done," Tawwab said. "There are a lot of resources available, and people are knocking on our doors daily, to say we have this to provide your students. I need to know, we as a team, need to pull those resources together as part of a bigger system."

Monts said the time to act is now.

"I think we're at a very good place as a state right now when it comes to zero tolerance reform, because there's such a heightened recognition for a need to do differently," Monts said.

For her part, Demps believes if nothing is done students like her son Jayanti could be drawn down the wrong path.

"It impacts everyone because it creates a culture of punishment instead of one of accountability and responsibility and training children to be correct in their behavior," Demps said.

State officials said districts can get a better handle on discipline by addressing culture issues with teachers and principals, and using resources like community mental health.

There are resources for finding out more information on suspensions at schools across the nation. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies has an online database to search for suspensions by school district.

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