A Path for Success: Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline for Detroit’s Young Black Males

The U.S. Department of Justice reported that Black youth in Michigan are five times as likely to be detained compared to white youth (2015). The disproportionate representation of boys and young men of color in all aspects of the juvenile and criminal legal systems results in mass incarceration that devastates the lives of young Black males, their families, and communities. One explanation for the high rate of incarcerated juveniles is the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP), a model used to describe the pattern students, specifically those of color, have with the criminal legal system due to harsh punishments implemented by in schools. A new community engagement project funded by the Urban Learning and Leadership Collaborative (ULLC) brings together Wayne State University School of Social Work researchers and area partners to support young Black males' resiliency to dismantle the STPP overwhelming the Detroit community. 

Shantalea Johns smiling
Shantalea Johns, WSU Social Work Lecturer

Community collaboration is at the heart of social work research and a driving force behind the Wayne State University (WSU) School of Social Work’s urban mission to support socially just and sustainable cities. “We have a responsibility to engage, build trust, and partner with the Detroit residents and organizations on the creation of new knowledge that benefits the community,” stated ULLC co-principal investigator and WSU Social Work Associate Professor Richard Smith. “The co-production of knowledge embraces the role of community and strengthens the capacity of Detroiters to address current and future challenges.” Convened by Focus: HOPE in 2012, the ULLC is a research-practice partnership that meshes local knowledge and university resources to create innovative, inquiry-based solutions to challenges identified by neighborhood residents in Detroit. In late 2020, with the support of the Spencer Foundation, the University of Michigan School of Education, Wayne State University, and Focus: HOPE, the ULLC put out a call seeking Detroit-based academic, community, and youth researcher teams looking to study STPP issues in ways that advance educational equity, freedom, and social justice.

Megan Hicks smiling
Megan Hicks, WSU Social Work Assistant Professor

Impassioned by recent events underscoring the blatant social injustice imposed on young Black males through police-involved deaths and excessive use of force during an arrest, WSU School of Social Work Assistant Professor Megan Hicks, PhD and the School’s Director of Continuing and Interprofessional Education and Lecturer Shantalea Johns, Ed.D., LMSW, knew a ULLC research team was the perfect opportunity to support Detroit’s young Black males and put the School’s urban mission into action. Hicks and Johns partnered with The Yunion, a non-profit organization located in the HOPE Village area of Detroit focused on innovative prevention initiatives serving area youth and families and a teen youth researcher to form a research team. Hicks and Johns’ team will focus on a cohort of young Black males engaged in the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy (CATTA) intervention delivered through The Yunion. The CATTA intervention employs an Emotional Stability Training® (EST) to reduce health risk outcomes among young Black males. EST teaches boys to proactively identify the negative emotions that influence detrimental life decisions and trains them to introspectively confront and conquer those emotions with composure during stressful situations. The training has a holistic format, including twice per week EST sessions, meditation and discussions, weekly school visits, weekly parent/caregiver meetings, and a completion certification and ceremony.

The school-to-prison pipeline is such a tragic concept that disrupts the healthy development of Black youth. CATTA strives to disrupt this negative trajectory for young Black males and sets them on a path for academic success, reduced involvement with the criminal/legal system, and have a greater sense of purpose in their lives. I am so excited for this opportunity to collaborate with The Yunion to highlight a much needed project for Black young men. – Megan Hicks, WSU Social Work Assistant Professor

CATTA photos
Jason Wilson, CEO of The Yunion and Director of The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy and CATTA students.
Nicole Wilsom smiling
Nicole Wilson, The Yunion Executive Director

The Yunion is integral to the ecosystem of youth and parent support services in the Hope Village community. This 100 block area intersects North Central Detroit and Highland Park. HOPE Village is home to Focus: HOPE and other community-serving institutions and schools. Over the last fourteen years, The Yunion has provided programming, training, and/or prevention messaging to nearly 11,000 youth, parents/caregivers, school administrators, and community members. The Yunion’s service delivery model includes evidence-based restorative practice group sessions, mentoring, career/job readiness training, employment, and parent education services.

The Yunion is thrilled to expand our evaluation and data collection efforts. We are so grateful to be given this opportunity to work with the WSU School of Social Work. Meaningful data analysis can be a gap for many non-profits. This partnership is going to help our organization not only demonstrate impact in the present but establish best practice in our program for years to come. - Nicole Wilson, Executive Director of The Yunion

The research team will be examining participant outcomes, including academic achievement, behavioral concerns, out-of-school suspension and expulsion, contact with the juvenile justice system, and mental health outcomes. The research team seeks to highlight CATTA’s EST as an effective community-based program in dismantling the school to prison pipeline for young black males who participate in the training. Additionally, study results are expected to further support the need for community-based programs for young black males and provide a broader range of targets for early interventions for young black males, thereby offering the potential to make existing intervention/prevention efforts for young Black males more effective.

The work that the Cave of Adullam does in the lives of our boys is life-changing on so many levels. I am grateful that we will have resources to assess and show that data so that it can not just substantiate the work that we do, but help to show how it is changing our community, one student at a time. - Jason Wilson, CEO of The Yunion and Director of The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy.

Home to two Research Centers of Excellence, the School understands the impact of data-informed initiatives that address the nation’s most pressing social problems, including achieving equal opportunity for all, which is identified as a Grand Challenge for Social Work. The Grand Challenges is 10-year ambitious social agenda promoting individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and a more just society. Since its launch in 2017, the School has devoted faculty, staff, funding, and other resources to support initiatives that cultivate a diverse and equitable environment through impactful community collaborations, diverse scholarships, and specialized internship opportunities.

Through this community-campus collaboration, we hope to further situate The Yunion’s  Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy as an evidence-based program that empowers and rehabilitates young Black males in Detroit.  Our long-term goal is to inform the next generation of criminal justice policies and programs designed to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for Black youth. – Shantalea Johns, WSU Director of Continuing Education and Lecturer

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