Kids who skip or are ousted from school for bad behavior are at risk of dropping out and entering the “school to prison pipeline.” Efforts to find solutions to school truancy – and keep kids from lives of crime are underway.

The National Leadership Summit on School – Justice Partnerships: Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court was convened in New York on March 11-13, 2012 to promote the development of partnerships among the court system, school administration, law enforcement and the community to keep kids in school and out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Michigan sent a cross-systems team of participants, including Honorable Dorene Allen, Presiding Probate and Juvenile Judge, Midland County; Honorable Mary Ellen Brennan, Circuit Judge from Oakland County; Honorable Michael Petoskey, Chief Judge, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians; Bob Higgins, Project Director for the Safe Schools Project from the Michigan Department of Education; and Terri Gilbert, Director of Child Welfare Funding and Juvenile Programs, Department of Human Services.

Anchored by the startling results of a statewide study of the school to prison pipeline completed in Texas, and the resultant report Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, the conference provided a national perspective on issues occurring in every state reflecting the connection between school attendance, school disciplinary policies and involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The Michigan team was energized by this extraordinary opportunity to gain a national perspective, and most importantly, to begin a strong collaborative effort to address the school to prison issues as they are reflected in our state.

Upon reviewing the data and participating in the excellent workshops and panel discussions offered at the National Summit, our team decided that Michigan must engage in resolution of this issue across disciplines. Only through opening communication between the courts, the schools, law enforcement and social service agencies can we effectively address this issue.  As a result, Michigan Department of Human Services then-Director Maura D. Corrigan convened the Michigan Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships: Keeping Kids in School and Out of the Justice System.

The Michigan Leadership Summit was  a call to action. It was a two-day summit held in September 2013 and hosted by the Michigan Department of Human Services (MDHHS), the Michigan Supreme Court, State Court Administrative Office, Michigan Department of Education (MDE), the University of Michigan, the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice (MCJJ), and Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. The summit was the beginning of a very exciting long-term project focused on truancy and eliminating the “school-to-prison pipeline” in our state.

  • The national high school graduation rate in 2010 was 69.2%
  • Michigan’s rate was better at 74.33%[1]; however, this figure reflects the overall state average and masks very low performing school districts with high dropout rates
  • Dropout rates are often issues of school discipline, multiple suspensions, school truancy, lack of differential response to juvenile’s needs, and eventual disconnection with the educational process all together [2]
  • Minority, mentally ill and disabled students are over represented in school suspension and discipline data[3]
  • It is estimated that there are 250,000 young people (ages 16-24) in Michigan without a high school diploma or GED and who are neither currently enrolled in school nor employed
  •  Eighty-two percent  of prisoners nation-wide are high school drop outs, and Michigan’s numbers reflect this pattern
  • Michigan currently houses almost 400 youth ages 14 through 18 in adult correctional facilities
  • The average stay in prison is four years. We currently spend $37,500 per year to house each prisoner, which is much higher than tuition and board for any higher educational institution in our state.

These are just some of the compelling data that imply the connection between school participation and delinquency. Also, the rise in zero tolerance policies that expel youth from school to the streets has contributed to the increase in student dropout rates and can be positively correlated to the rise in juvenile crime.

In order to reinvent Michigan with an educated workforce, we must tend not only to educational reform within the schools, but we must focus on keeping kids in school and out of the courts.  We must reinvent school discipline and expulsion policies in an effort to keep our young people engaged in education.  It is more cost effective for the state to engage young people in preparing for participation in the workforce than in preparing and paying for a prison sentence.  Given these considerations, three desired outcomes were  identified (below) for the Michigan Summit to promote positive youth development in Michigan.

  1. Better understanding of the wide-ranging impact of school exclusion and truancy:
    • impact on school retention/graduation rates,
    • how school exclusion is connected to delinquency
    • how keeping kids in school contributes to youth’s success and  Michigan’s economic development

2. Agreement with/commitment to a strategic plan to improve  school inclusion and student retention outcomes in Michigan

3. Agreement with /commitment to formulate and implement an Action Plan that enables the accomplishment of the strategic plan

Upon reviewing the data and participating in the excellent workshops and panel discussions offered at the National Summit, our team determined that Michigan must engage in resolution of this issue by creating and emphasizing a vision for Michigan. Since our long-term desired outcome is that all youth in Michigan graduate from high school instead of ending up in prison, the vision is Justice. School. For All.

 To achieve our vision, distinct objectives must be accomplished. These objectives fall into both strategic and tactical categories, the assumption being that accomplishment of the tactical objectives will directly impact the accomplishment of the strategic objectives. Over the next three years, the following objectives need to be realized to move us closer to achieving the vision. The objectives are:

Strategic Objectives:

  • Increase overall state graduation rates by 5%
  • Increase local graduation rates by 10%
  • Reduce juvenile arrest rates for truancy and school – related misconduct by 5%

Tactical Objectives

  • Reduce truancy rates by 5%
  • Reduce school expulsion by 10%
  • Reduce out-of-school suspensions by 10%

Accomplishing these strategic objectives will require thoughtful change to the current educational environment in Michigan.  The Michigan Zero Tolerance legislation may need to be revisited; individual school discipline policies may need revisions, schools may need to take a more active role in following up on absenteeism in order to reduce truancy. And finally, in conjunction with the Summit, communities need to work together to support the change in approach required across the system in order to affect change.

Each of these objectives, as accomplished, will result in an improved business climate for the state, promote economic development, and reduce social avoidance-related costs such as property loss, personal pain/suffering, adjudication/incarceration, substance use disorders, etc. In addition, the state will realize intangible gains such as improved reputational perceptions further advancing growth for Michigan. An educated citizenry is Michigan’s best investment for future success.

To accomplish the above, we invited leaders from all 83 counties to the Michigan Summit where attendees made a commitment to solving the school to prison issues in their communities. The judiciary and the education communities worked together as a team (with three other leaders of their choosing) to formulate an action plan for implementation in their county. These team members included, but were not limited to, leaders from MDHHS, juvenile referees, prosecutors, probation officers, school truancy officers, school principals, teachers or other school staff, law enforcement, and community mental health representatives. They are known as the County Leadership Teams. Not only were the County Leadership Teams charged with developing action plans on how to address the school to prison pipeline issues in their own counties, but they were expected to lead further work through the formation of a Home Team (described below) and implement their plans long-term.

After the Summit, County Leadership Teams expanded into Home Teams. Home Teams include any and all individuals deemed necessary to implement action plans in the local community. Suggestions for expanded team membership included, but are not limited to, school district officials within counties, parents, students, school board officials, local law enforcement, non-profit youth organizations, faith based groups and the interested public.

Since the first Michigan Summit held in September of 2013, the teams have met yearly with other teams and leadership across Michigan as well as to use our Collaboration and Knowledge Center to continue to learn and collaborate with other counties in Michigan to meet the goals set in their action plans.


[1] Center of Educational Performance and Information, 2011 Cohort Four Year Graduation Rates

[2] Skiba, Russell; “Reaching a Critical Juncture for our Kids: The Need to Reassess School – Justice Partnerships” Indiana University, 2010

[3] ibid