About 50 attendees packed a room of Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence Building Wednesday evening for a town hall hosted by state Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor), titled “How to Create a School to Success Continuum: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline.”
The town hall featured a panel of experts discussing and answering questions regarding disciplinary systems in schools and the mechanism by which these systems often penalize disadvantaged students from an early age and funnel them into the U.S. prison system.
In Michigan, zero-tolerance policies were a central part of this mechanism for about 20 years, according to Zemke. These are policies that treat any weapons-related offense in Michigan schools with expulsion, and which, in August, will be reformed significantly by a series of laws that were introduced in the house by Zemke and several other representatives with bipartisan support.
Tod Durkin, a parent and active member of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, explained the harmful nature of the policy.
“Zero tolerance treated a kid who brought a knife to school to cut his apple the same way as somebody who brought a loaded AK-47 into the school,” Durkin said. “It didn’t differentiate between those two kids at all, and it required the same punishment. Zero tolerance was a mandatory expulsion not only from the school your student attended but any and every public high school in the state of Michigan, so they in fact lost access to public education.”
The bill amending these policies requires a more thorough consideration of each case, and encourages restorative practices in situations of conflict, meaning interpersonal reconciliation in the case of a fight, for example.
Zemke said the new laws and the town hall were intended to begin a discussion and closer look at the school to prison pipeline.
“It’s important to note that zero-tolerance policies have directly contributed to start young men and women heading to our incarceration system,” he said.
Several on the panel presented data on this phenomenon, acknowledging the disproportionate way in which it affects students of color.
Joseph Ryan, a University of Michigan associate professor in the School of Social Work, presented data indicating overall high school suspensions in Ann Arbor have been cut nearly in half since 2010, but the decline is far less significant for Black students.
Additionally, Ryan said the data on the school to prison pipeline in Michigan was “very thin.”
“(Michigan’s juvenile justice system) is a giant system, and no one can tell you how many kids are involved,” Ryan said.
This lack of data makes the phenomenon hard to study, though there is data indicating that in this case too, while overall enrollment in the system is falling, disparities are growing. According to Ryan, current representation of African American youth in Michigan’s juvenile justice facilities is at around 40 percent, though they account for 13 percent of the population.
At issue, according to Derrick Jackson, Director of Community Engagement in the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, is the way in which young children become “lost between systems” of schools, juvenile facilities and community organizations.
The new set of bills were brought to the Michigan House of Representatives with the help of DaQuann Harrison, a high school student who faced expulsion after a bullying altercation prompted him to bring a knife and BB gun to school for self defense. Though he was expelled for 180 days, he worked with representative Zemke to spread awareness and put pressure on Michigan lawmakers to reform zero-tolerance policies.
Working with the Student Advocacy Center, Harrison has been able to return to school early, and has been named a finalist for Michigan’s 2017 Young Citizen of the Year award.
“I’m very honored and privileged," Harrison said. "Not everyone gets the opportunity like me to use my story to potentially change this. That means a lot."