It may be easy to tune out school violence on the news, but when it happens in your own back yard it can become impossible to ignore. For the Ferndale School District, a recent near miss has sent a clear message. On November 7, 2014, the district announced it would close its Digital Learning Center.
The Ferndale Digital Learning Center is an alternative education facility that provided high school classes to adults and teens for whom traditional schooling simply did not work. Many of its students had been suspended or expelled from surrounding districts. The Digital Learning Center offered a unique form of hybrid online and classroom education that allowed nontraditional students to learn at their own pace and get support they needed from teachers.
As a result of the peppered past of its students, the facility was prone to violent incidents. In 2011, a student was shot in the leg outside the school. Then in 2013 a brawl broke out resulting in five arrests and a broken leg.
Then on Thursday, November 6, a teenager brought a loaded pistol to the school. The gun went off while he was being searched for marijuana by the school’s police liaison. One report indicates that the weapon went off while being handled by the officer, not the student. The bullet hit a wall and no one was injured, but the student was immediately taken into custody.
The incident was the last straw for the new Superintendent, Blake Prewitt. He immediately began modifying the alternative high school program, which will be converted to an entirely online model and relocated to the Jefferson Center in Oak Park by December 1, 2014.
This swift action in response to a strangely non-violent gun incident will result in 343 students losing their ability to get on-the-spot help from teachers. Under the new model, students will have to make appointments with staff in advance.
It was not a decision Prewitt wanted to make:
“The discouraging thing is that there are many students who learn through the program. It gives them the chance to finish school when their life circumstances may not be ideal for traditional schools. Maybe they need to work. Or they have a family to take care of. We provide an education to those students, and the sad piece is that one student who makes a very poor decision affects the students who really want an education.”
While it is clear that something needed to change at the DLC, the decision to close the school and radically shift the program feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Hopefully, moving forward, Prewitt and the Ferndale School Board will recognize the need to explore alternative discipline for these students who do not do well in traditional school settings, rather than “increasing security” and treating them more like criminals than they already are.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense and students’ rights lawyer for Schmidt Law Services in Southfield, Michigan. She represents students facing suspension and expulsion hearings, and in court. If you know a student in trouble at school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a consultation.