photo of Ruth LaPlace Zweifler

Zeroing in on school violence

Ruth LaPlace Zweifler ’51 has spent much of her life advocating on behalf of students who are not prospering in public school settings. In 1975 she founded the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, after her volunteer work in public schools had opened her eyes to “the great number of children who needed more schooling but who were actually receiving less because they were frequently suspended or placed on shortened schedules.” Since then, the center has challenged these practices for individual students and at the policy level.

In 1995, a Michigan law required permanent expulsion for a child of any age who has a weapon in school. But according to Zweifler, school districts commonly expel children for vague offenses (such as a student who was expelled for cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife) and with vague criteria for their re-entry into school. The goal of the center “is to make mainstream schools work for all children,” says Zweifler. “We proactively develop programs whose policies and practices keep children in school. We support student access to equitable, quality public education.” The center has developed cooperatives with community colleges, consortiums between schools, families and the court system, and community centers in residential neighborhoods.

Zweifler is especially concerned about the increasing number of students who are punished for making injudicious remarks about school violence: “Children are now expelled for talking about school violence, for discussing incidents that have scared them. Young people are impetuous and compulsive, and adolescents who make jokes about guns or bombs are often trying to handle all the information they get from the media. They are trying to work out their fears, and often they do it in inappropriate ways.

“We, as adults, must be available to help these youngsters work through their fears and unacceptable impulses. But we have identified every child as potentially dangerous, and this is destructive to children and to adults. In Michigan, middle school children comprise the bulk of students barred from school by these policies and practices. There is no obligation of any agency to provide services or supervision. We give felons and criminals three strikes before they’re out, but we only give children one strike. Zero tolerance punishes young children who are often frightened, sometimes thoughtless, rarely dangerous, but now clearly endangered.

“Bryn Mawr taught me to think for myself, and I’ve had to do that to put the center in place because there wasn’t any model for it. I have seen the potential of children who are too often dismissed as nonlearners or incorrigible. I want all children to have the opportunity to experience the caliber of education that I received at Bryn Mawr.”

—Alicia Bessette

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