Panel features students who evaded school-to-prison pipeline

Michigan students are speaking out about school discipline policies that tainted their view of education, and how adults in the system helped steer them away from the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

In February, Michigan State Rep. Adam Zemke, from Ann Arbor, hosted a town hall meeting at Forsythe Middle School that featured a “School To Prison Pipeline” student panel with several students who turned their lives around after disciplinary problems in middle school, MLive reports.

Jakobie Pillar, a 17-year-old junior at Ypsilanti’s alternative high school, discussed how regular suspensions for fighting in middle school convinced him school wasn’t his thing, and he resolved to follow after his older brothers who never finished high school—one of whom is now incarcerated.

Pioneer High School senior Marquaun Kane, also 17, shared a similar story, about moving to Ann Arbor from Ypsilanti after repeated suspensions for fighting. His brother, who also faced disciplinary issues, stayed behind in Ypsilanti schools and eventually dropped out after an expulsion in 7th grade to join a gang.

“For Kane and Pillar, the school-to-prison pipeline is more than an abstract concept about the link between getting suspended or expelled from school and the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity,” MLive reports. “It’s a reality their brothers faced, and a path they followed too until someone gave them the motivation and support to find a different way.”

The panel discussion also featured two other students—Pioneer senior Henry Taylor and Lincoln High School Senior Max McNally—as well as Anell Eccleston, an advocate with the Student Advocacy Center.

Pillar met Eccleston as an 8th-grader in Ypsilanti’s alternative middle school program, and she convinced him to join a social justice group she facilitates called Youth Action Michigan. The experience showed him how to share his experiences in a constructive way, and to take ownership over his own learning, he said.

Eccleston and the students on the panel also discussed the state’s new “rethink school discipline” laws, and how a shift away from “zero tolerance” toward “restorative practices” could keep more kids engaged in school.

The new laws encourage schools to focus on repairing harm caused by students through discussions and alternative methods like community service, and to take “circumstantial factors,” including age, discipline history, and disabilities, into account when determining punishments. The idea is to keep students at school, rather than resort to automatic suspensions or expulsions for certain offenses, though mandatory punishments for guns at school and other serious crimes remain in place.

Kane, who now works as a certified restorative justice practitioner at the Dispute Resolution Center, pointed to evidence that students who disengage from school after repeated suspensions or expulsion are far more likely to engage in criminal activity.

“If we’re suspending students and we’re sending them back home, which is likely the origin of their angst and where all this conflict happens, are they really doing better? Are they faring better at all?” he questioned. “You’re taking them from an area where you have all these individuals with all these degrees and all these resources —counseling, mentoringship, educational services—compared to what we have at home.”

Eccleston believes “the solution is simple but it’s very difficult.”

“It’s all about relationships,” she said. “If a teacher sees a student who is struggling and they’re able to build a relationship with that student, that can alleviate a lot of that stress.”

Eccleston’s insight into what’s working in Ypsilanti resonates with the research findings from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which fielded the School Cultures and Student Formation Project.

According to the findings, published in The Content of Their Character:

What these case studies also consistently show is the importance of the informal articulation of a moral culture through the example of teachers and other adults in the school community. The moral example of teachers unquestionably complemented the formal instruction students received, but arguably, it was far more poignant to, and influential upon, the students themselves.

And while Eccleston points out that this work can be “very difficult,” particularly with students who have a history of bad behavior, the new restorative approach in Michigan and other states is likely a key to diverting youngsters from a path to prison.

Pillar, Kane, and their fellow panelists are now engaged in their communities, helping others to understand how exclusionary discipline can set young people—like their siblings—on the path to prison, and how learning to take responsibility for their choices and learning can benefit the whole community.

Duke Law is among a host of institutions that offer resources to educators looking for alternatives to suspension that can help students take responsibility for their actions.