'School to Prison Pipeline'-- WLAM panel looks at student struggles

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Editor's Note: The following is the first of two articles based on a panel discussion last week entitled, "The School to Prison Pipeline."

By Frank Weir

Legal News

Although many individuals in the community may think the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) is the salvation for struggling teens, it is in fact a detriment.

So said two members of a panel on Tuesday last week discussing, "The School to Prison Pipeline" as part of the WCBA's Bias Awareness Week activities.

The panel was co-sponsored by the WCBA and the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan Washtenaw Region and examined how students who fail in high school often end up in trouble with the law and, as adults, going to prison.

Panelists included Robert Belous, principal at Ypsilanti High School; Margaret Harner, the program director from the Student Advocacy Center; Kim Moore, Juvenile Defense Attorney; Jessica Ashmore, Juvenile Probation Officer; and Gail Altenburg, Juvenile Court Referee.

Judge Timothy Connors served as moderator.

Both Belous and Harner were in agreement on the GED.

"I am opposed to the GED," Harner said. "It limits possibilities for kids after its completion and I think the GED requirements are impossible for a number of kids to pass.

"If struggling students do the GED prep but can't pass the test, they've wasted a couple of years of their lives. It is better to try to figure out a way for them to get the high school diploma or enter another academic or vocational program in the county."

And Belous was even more forceful in his denunciation of the GED.

"This is the challenge that we face every day: how do we provide meaningful opportunities for every child. Not everyone is going to study astrophysics. And in many cases, on the job and career exploration can get them back involved in education if they are struggling.

"To me, the GED is one of the most criminal things we can do to a kid today. We must engage them before they drop out and go to the GED program. There are a number of career and vocational options but due to funding restrictions, they have to limit what they can offer."

In response to a question from the audience as to why educators so aggressively suggest the GED to struggling students, Belous said, "It's easier for administrators and educators, to be honest.

"The kids are out of their hair and that's why it is recommended. I don't believe educators are always looking out for the best interests of the students. We don't advocate for kids in some cases."

And Belous added that once a student leaves to pursue a GED, "then the state considers that an alternative setting and that student will not be counted against that school's drop out rate."

"When a parent comes to me and says they want their child in the GED program I tell them don't do it. And when they ask why, I tell them it limits their options for the future and I won't charge them to complete their diploma even if the student is 19. Let's finish and get the diploma."

Belous believes that parents are not always aware of the "long term investment" when a student achieves a high school diploma, it's only a "short term gain, one step in the process."

"I want all students to get the diploma."

Before coming to Ypsilanti High School in June of this year, Belous had focused his career on urban schools that face high rates of student drop outs.

"We need to focus on the factors we can address that affect student attendance because we know that the primary issue is attendance. School attendance has the greatest impact by a factor of eight over the next factor as to which kids will stay in school and graduate."

Belous expressed frustration knowing that studies have found that students who miss 10 days of school in a semester are eight times more likely to drop out yet truancy enforcement does not even begin until a student has missed 18 days.

He said that schools must "develop relationships with kids. We know that can help keep kids in school and keep school relevant to their lives."

He added that schools need to establish ways to support students when they start to fail especially during freshman year in high school.

"We need safety valves for when students start to fail to get them back on track before they fail a class. When students start to fail classes, that greatly increases the likelihood that we will lose him or her.

"And when we look at who we have in the criminal justice system, we see the consequences of school failure. We must put supports in place immediately when students start to fail."

In addition to students who drop out, expulsions also influence which teens may go on to enter the criminal justice system as adults, Harner said.

She notes that Michigan is one of only 11 states that do not stipulate that students have a constitutional right to an education.

"Expulsion is always permanent. Once expelled, there is no requirement under the law that schools must take that student back. And we know from a 2009 survey, that if students are expelled or otherwise not engaged by school, then they are going to be doing things on the street during the day and those are going to be things that we don't like.

"That gets them into the juvenile court and often into the adult prison system," Harner said.

Harner noted that parents of expelled students are caught in a double bind. "Although legislation enumerates why students should be expelled, it is up to the parents to get them into an alternative education program.

"But there usually aren't any alternative programs. At an expulsion hearing, we try to get a referral to an alternative program or get a time limit on the expulsion with the hope that the student can return the next year and eventually earn a diploma."

Harner said the state of Michigan's law has allowed school districts to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy that can lead to bizarre results.

"We saw a case where a little girl from Poland, a fifth grader, whose mother did not speak much English, faced expulsion because her mother packed a plastic knife in her lunch.

"The school district has a policy where anything remotely or closely resembling a weapon calls for automatic expulsion.

"Districts can and do follow a zero tolerance policy and will expell students under it."

Next: Juvenile Court adjudication and probation.

Published: Mon, Oct 24, 2011

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