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Center's Aim: Give Students Clout

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Center's Aim: Give Students Clout

By Kathy Hulik


The dictionary says an advocate is one who speaks in favor of, who argues for or supports a person or cause.

There is a group in Ann Arbor which defines its function as advocating for the area’s students. It calls itself, appropriately enough, the Student Advocacy Center (SAC).

SAC is the group which recently filed an economic bias lawsuit against the Ann Arbor Board of Education. What exactly is this group and how did it come to challenge the city’s school system and its concept of an adequate education?

SAC is a nonprofit corporation, with a policy board, two part-time staff members and a large core of volunteer members. It has a small office in the Wesley Center.

Flora Burke, the part-time program coordinator, said SAC sees its role as providing accountability to the parent and student on the part of the administration, school board, teachers and staff.

"Our role is to be a strong voice for the student. When a student comes to us with a problem, our goal is to get a clear picture of his point of view and determine what he is saying that is legitimate,” said Burke.

Ruth Zweifler, SAC’s co-chairwoman, said the group formally began in 1975 when a subcommittee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began to study problems in the schools.

Members rallied around the issue of the disproportionate number of blacks being suspended.

“We sent a letter to 250 persons we knew were interested in school issues in November 1975. About 60 showed up at a meeting to help us,” said Zweifler.

The group operated without funding for a time, then got some funds from the ACLU and the Interfaith Council of Congregations. Last November, they received a small grant from the state office of Juvenile Justice Services for a staff.

Zweifler said the group has four main purposes:

— To act as advocates in individual cases;

— To document patterns of problems in the schools;

— To raise the community’s consciousness in educational issues:

— To act as a resource for other advocates.

If a parent or student feels he needs an advocate, he can call the center, which has a 24-hour answering service. Zweifler said a volunteer advocate will try to meet with the parent and child within 24 hours.

‘People aren’t obligated to use one of us. We don't assign advocates. We try to find someone the student feels secure with and chooses." said Zweifler.

"Once an advocate is chosen, there is a heavy commitment to stay with the issue as long as the student or family wants us.” she said.

An advocate will seek out the student’s records, gather pertinent information or consult experts about the problem. He will accompany the student to meetings or hearings all the way from the classroom to the courtroom.

"Our goal is to get the person to speak for himself.” said Burke. “We are not mediators.”

There is no fee for the center’s service, and so far, Zweifler said, they have not refused to take on any case. Even in the instance of a suspension for drug use, they will advocate for the student.

"We will go to the school and try to get the student reinstated. We do not believe in suspensions,” said Burke.

"Or we will find out what support systems the school has to help the student and try to jog the school into using them. We might find out what other community groups offer help and get the school to direct the kid there,” said Zweifler.

She said the center dealt with approximately 100 cases last year. The most common problems concerned age of majority, special education issues and discipline, according to Zweifler.

She said many students don’t know how to handle the red tape in a large school system and come to SAC for aid. This included, one child who thought his school needed more decorations. He did not know who to ask about this, how to write the proper letters, or how to handle the union that wouldn’t let him paint the wall himself.

Zweifler said the student focus of the center has been gradually redirected. “We expected to see mostly senior high kids with discipline problems. What's happened is that half of the students who come here are in elementary school. This is reflected in our lawsuit.”

The center filed an economic bias lawsuit in Federal District Court in July against Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 15 black students from the Green Road public housing project. It charges that the children were denied an education in King schools and asks for direct monetary damages of $300,000.

"The lawsuit was a very big step for the families and for us too." she said. "We facilitated the meeting between the lawyers and the Green Road families to explore the issues. In the lawsuit, we are formally listed as 'next friend.'

“We still ask ourselves questions like, did we talk to everyone we could have? are we being carried away by something? are we behaving responsibly?" said Zweifler.

Burke said she is thrilled with the evolution of the Organization she has seen in her nine months there.

"There is a broad spectrum of people here with a deep level of commitment. The problems we are dealing with are not the kind that can be solved on a short-term basis. But slowly we are chipping away at the issues we set out to chip away at." she said.

SHE DEFINED those issues as seeing that the schools provide equal educational opportunities and adequate services as well as meet the needs of students.

Zweifler added that SAC would like to see discipline redirected from punishment to help, and would like some mechanism whereby the student could make himself heard in the bureaucracy.

In the future, Zweifler hopes SAC can respond to more people and be a support center for other advocate centers. Presently there are about 20 trained volunteer advocates the center can call upon and about 70 persons it uses for resources.

There will be an advocate training program held on October 1 and 2. No qualifications are necessary, and anyone interested can call the center at 995-0477 to get their name on the list of potential advocates. However, Burke said the training program is filled on a space-available basis.

Burke said she is aware of nine other advocacy centers in the nation. She says the Ann Arbor SAC is unique in the number of volunteers it uses.

Burke is optimistic about the future. “My goal is to really change the system and go out of business," she said.

STUDENT ADVOCATES — SAC members gather in their small office in the Wesley Center for a research session. Lea Vaughn, left, is the group’s volunteer secretary and a third-year law student at the U-M. Ruth Zweifler, standing, is SAC’s co-chairwoman and also a volunteer. Flora Burke, at right, works as the center’s part-time program coordinator. All three have functioned as student advocates.