Late last year, a large brawl broke out between the football teams of Huron High School and Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. One coach pushed another in the heat of the game, and the next thing anyone knew between 30 and 70 people were fighting. Of all those involved, and of all those fired or suspended from school, criminal charges were only brought against three Pioneer students. I would bet you can guess those students’ skin color.
African American students are far more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended, expelled or arrested for equivalent conduct violations, and Ann Arbor isn’t immune to that reality. Although school violence has plummeted since the 1990s, juvenile arrests have become far more likely at school and our youths’ futures have been profoundly affected. It’s jarring to see these dynamics at play so close to home. Involvement in the juvenile justice system devastates the likelihood of high-school graduation. Juvenile detention facilities’ educational services are negligible, and students who do graduate are often denied access to critical channels of social mobility due to their criminal records — not only in public housing but also in student loans and occupational licensing.
Many students wrapped up in the juvenile justice system are disadvantaged to begin with. Resources that could provide children with basic educational resources are often used to instead fund things like security staff. The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to this growing national trend. We’re criminalizing rather than educating our nation’s children, which has real implications for the kind of society we’re building. We’re seeing schools create roadblocks to education. Not only that, research indicates that excessive disciplinary action actually increases the likelihood of later criminal misconduct. Harsh juvenile penalties therefore threaten our safety, not to mention the costs of incarceration. As it is, Michigan spends roughly $1.27 billion more on prisons than on education per year.
Mark Fancher, a lawyer in the ACLU of Michigan, advocates for a different approach to justice. In a letter to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor in support of the Pioneer players, he asked that “better alternatives” to criminal charges be considered. In particular, Fancher envisions a justice system that values restorative justice — justice that brings together everyone impacted by a crime and fosters community healing. The idea behind it is this: opportunities for repairing damage and for victim-violator communication build character and community resilience, and in so doing, they enable meaningful repentance.
It’s just this sort of the reform that we need to be implementing. The Pioneer brawl arrests highlight difficult structural challenges, but when injustice hits close to home, we’re given the opportunity to make our voices heard. We’re given the opportunity to advocate for a restorative justice system and not a penal one. We’re given the opportunity to stand with our community in a trying time. Ann Arbor Concerned Citizens for Justice has been organizing rallies in support of the charged students, and early April 2, the undergraduate ACLU chapter and other student groups will join a police-escorted march from the Ann Arbor District Library to the Washtenaw County Trial Court in support of one of the juveniles.
In Ann Arbor and as students, we don’t accept disparate punishment on the basis of race, and we reject unhelpful approaches to criminal justice. We stand up for racial equality and call attention to counter-productive strategies. And most of all, we stand in solidarity with our community, especially with our community’s youth.
Molly Niedbala is an LSA senior.