Formerly Incarcerated Students Advocate For Reduced Suspensions and Expulsions

Six students from G.W. Carver College and Career Academy in Memphis, Tennessee shared recommendations with their local school board on how to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

The students are part of a program called Brothers and Sisters Speaking Out for Change, organized by the nonprofit BRIDGES, which trains formerly incarcerated young people in advocacy. BRIDGES coordinator Mahal Burr told The North Star that the program believes young people who have been in the criminal justice system have better insights on how to prevent other young people from entering the school-to-prison pipeline.

The students, all of whom previously spent time in juvenile detention, presented their ideas to nearly a dozen leaders from Shelby County Schools (SCS) and their community on April 1. They recommended eliminating suspensions and expulsions at the elementary school level, creating morning group check-ins with teachers, and focusing on character building, among other suggestions. The students also suggested designating rooms for students to solve conflicts and regroup before things escalate, Chalkbeat reported.

“We have seen firsthand the school-to-prison pipeline” and want to be “a resource to our community leaders designing solutions,” the students read from a purpose statement. The students cited statistics on student discipline in their district and brochures to showcase their recommendations.

Carver Academy junior Aveion Wilson also proposed having mentors available to students when they get in trouble. Wilson told Chalkbeat that students often don’t have people to discuss issues with. “They don’t have anyone to talk to, they don’t have anyone to guide them or vent their emotions out towards.”

District and community officials rotated between four tables to learn more about each of the students’ recommendations, according to Chalkbeat. Officials took notes at each station,and said they were impressed by the students’ input. “The things that you young individuals said today were the exact same things that grown degreed people say,” JB Blocker, the district’s manager of equity and discipline, told the students.

The program demonstrates how young people, who are sometimes viewed as a problem, can in actuality be part of the solution. “They were definitely heard,” Burr told The North Star.

SCS did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment. The district has promised to incorporate more student voices into district decisions. In December 2018, students told SCS that transportation was an obstacle for students getting to school, work, or after-school activities. A month later, the school board requested a feasibility study to look into free city bus passes for students, local station WMC reported. "Regardless of the cost, we think the return of investment if it reduces absenteeism and if it helps students who want to go to work find employment opportunities,” Shelby County School board member Kevin Woods told WMC.

Woods noted that students attending alternative schools already receive free bus passes. Burr said the students felt “really good” about their latest session with school and community leaders. The students have some work ahead of them as well — Burr said school officials want students to help train the district’s principals over the summer, and members of the juvenile court system have invited the students to provide recommendations on helping at-risk children.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.