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Student Advocacy Center

January/February 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

With funding from PRRAC, the Student Advocacy Center (SAC) conducted research on the implementation of Michigan and US special education laws, in order to determine the accessibility and availability of channels for participatory action in education policy and decision-making among parents of early adolescent schoolchildren. The Center's efforts to reach out to and support parents organizing for educational change have begun to have positive impact on problems commonly raised in Michigan's education system.

Based on an analysis of its intake docket, the SAC has determined that the greatest number of complaints it receives concern problems of expulsion and other disciplinary actions. Reminiscent of assertions made more than 20 years ago, African American parents continue to express the opinion that their children receive disproportionately harsher disciplinary actions. Survey data collected by the federal Office of Civil Rights are consistent with the allegations.

In December 1994, the Michigan legislature rushed passage of Public Act 328, requiring the mandatory expulsion (a minimum of 90 school days for 5th graders and under, a minimum of 180 days for older children) of a child of any age charged with carrying a weapon. Additionally, any designated school district employee now has the authority to expel a student if "in the judgment of that person . . . the interest of the school is served by the . . . order."

The edict brings a virtual police state into the schools. With no process for a family to appeal the decision, an unpopular child can be targeted and removed from school with little or no trouble. A parent may petition for readmission, but only after the child has served the mandatory time out of school.

This law assures that numbers of children, perhaps the neediest and most troubled, will be out of the school system and on the street for significant periods of time with neither services nor supervision. The potential misuse or abuse of such policies toward minority and/or low-income groups is astronomical and may be pan and parcel of a wholesale movement to ensure only the whitest and brightest retain access to public education.

Three Center programs have been designed to address these concerns. Mobilization for Equity, an initiative of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students provides educational advocacy for court-involved youth and training to court workers and parents about students' rights and pertinent educational policies. The programs statewide focus includes issuing position statements and educating the public about the equity impact of a variety of state and federal educational policies.

Project SOAR (Student Opportunities for Alternative Resources) identifies non-stigmatizing alternatives for students experiencing serious difficulties the traditional public schools. To date, ten students, including those expelled under Public Act 328, were able to continue their schooling, thanks to the Center's efforts.

The third project is the Positive Action Center, originated and staffed by parent volunteers at McKenzie High School in Detroit. The program is an in-house suspension program for students charged with minor offenses such as truancy, tardiness and insubordination.

For several months beginning last spring and through the summer, SAC staff met with residents and parents of a 24-unit public housing site to learn about various situations the children and youth face. Parents said the children: felt unwelcome in school; had temptations to skip school; had readily available drugs; had provocations to conflict; and experienced unfair treatment by the police. A panel discussion sponsored by SAC and videotaped by the University of Michigan's Office of Service Learning documented parents' stories of school officials' low expectations and prejudicial attitudes. They reported cases in which, on the first day of school, a teacher of accelerated classes told students they must be in the wrong place, despite the child's 3.8 OPA. Other children were told they must not take certain classes because the work would be too difficult.

In the fall, this parent group began to meet weekly at a nearby medical clinic.

To date, they have initiated several community service programs/activities, including a cooking club for high school-age children; an intergenerational read-aloud storytelling session for younger children; and a youth-led newsletter that will be published on-site. The group has submitted a formal request to the Ann Arbor City Housing Commission for a housing unit to be renovated into a community center. Also underway are plans to create a tutoring program and ballet classes for the younger children that will make use of local volunteer instructors.

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