A former school social worker and current MST supervisor reflects on harsh school discipline policies feeding the school-to-prison pipeline
“It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education.” Chief Justice Earl Warren, 1954
I was a special-education school social worker and school social-work clinical supervisor in the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) schools. These are the “lowest performing” Detroit public schools and were taken over by a governor-appointed emergency manager in 2011. As a Multisystemic Therapy (MST) supervisor and former MST therapist, I have dealt with keeping youth in school.
While schools have complex challenges, one of the most frustrating aspects I observed was the detrimental discipline policies.
Students were routinely sent home for transgressions as minor as wearing the wrong color socks or belt. For a district with the vast majority of students living in poverty, this response seemed overly harsh. These already disenfranchised students were often unable replace the offending article of clothing. It is known that the more a student is suspended, the less likely he or she is to complete or even return to school.
When more significant behavioral issues such as fights or drug possession occur, the offenders were often expelled for an entire school year—barring attendance in a public school for 180 days. More often than not, in my experience, these youth did not return to school at all. In the interest of safety, it is understandable to try and prevent dangerous behavior. However, as these youth are denied an education, their opportunities for enhancing their life as productive members of society dwindle.
Removing students from school often contributes to school to prison pipeline
Their conduct is likely to become more risky, not less, when they are not able to attend school. We later see these same youth in prison or on the streets. By denying services and casting them away from school, they will continue their destructive behaviors. Their potential to be contributing citizens is no longer fostered as the youth and their families are often unable to find alternative education and support.
MST therapists work with the family to find educational opportunities. Excessive suspensions/expulsions puts the youth at a higher risk of being placed out of the home. Since the vast majority of MST youth are on probation, a condition to remain in the home is to be successful in school. If a youth is suspended, it could violate the rules of probation and lead to placement in a residential facility. This increases the chances of future reoffending.
It is my hope that schools reconsider their response to these youth and institute more restorative practices that give youth a chance to fix their mistakes and help those whom they may have harmed in school. One intervention that schools could easily implement is to refer problem students to MST instead of expelling them. MST therapists often have success working with the parent to advocate for alternatives to suspension, and otherwise suggest and implement strategies to better address youth behavior in the classroom.
Because MST addresses the environmental factors that contribute to delinquency, it is an ideal program to work with schools in addressing standards that are counterproductive to promoting healthy youth, families and communities. The youth who have the most careless behavior are the ones who need the most attention.
Amreen Khan is an MST Supervisor at The Guidance Center
To learn more about how the school-to-prison pipeline contributes to disparities in the juvenile justice system, check out this infographic.