I have been telling anyone who would listen for the past two years that the only way schools in Detroit will stop suspending students at nearly the rate they graduate is when students and their parents stood up and spoke out. That finally happened this weekend when over a hundred students, parents and other concerned Detroiters marched through the downtown streets up to the site of the new Wayne County Jail to demand that education leaders put an end the school-to-prison pipeline.
There were 25,364 suspensions in Detroit Public Schools last year, equal to roughly 38 percent of the overall student population. The district’s graduation rate was just under 65 percent. Granted, the suspension totals include some students who were suspended multiple times. Still, the gap between exclusion and graduation isn’t that wide. And to be clear, this is not a crisis exclusive to DPS schools. While the data isn’t as easy to come by, anecdotally, we can say with reasonable confidence that the suspension problem in city charter schools is similarly high.
The students who led the demonstration are acutely aware of the issue’s severity. They were organized by the Youth Voice project of the Harriet Tubman Center. All of them have either been suspended for something relatively minor like dress code violations, talking back or being a few seconds late for class, or they knew peers who were. Zero tolerance policies that mandate suspension for minor offenses are what push kids into the pipeline.
They have seen the impact on other kids they know who are left sitting at home or are out on the streets. They know that for kids who are repeatedly suspended, jail time is as likely as college graduation. That is why they marched, chanting “education over incarceration,” and demanding that school officials and the state legislature put an end to zero tolerance policies and practices.
Similar organizing efforts in Denver, New York and Baltimore have been successful because young people led public protests, got the attention of adults, and pushed school administrators, municipal leaders and legislators for zero tolerance reforms.
The Detroit protest is the first in a series of actions, according to organizers. The students plan to take their demands to Lansing.