Detroit’s Financial Martial Law Hits School for Teen Moms

The city's new emergency financial manager has his eye on the Catherine Ferguson Academy.

By Channing Kennedy Apr 28, 2011

Via reader Sara Haile-Mariam comes this real-life worst-case scenario of Michigan’s emergency manager policy for cities and school districts.

The Catherine Ferguson Academy is a unique public high school serving 300 students in inner-city Detroit. It’s the only of its kind in the country; it works exclusively with teen mothers and mothers-to-be, providing day care services and other needed resources for its students. It also has a strong focus on farming and agriculture, and it also claims a 90 percent graduation rate, a percentage unprecedented in historically underserved majority-black school districts, to say nothing of graduation rates for teen mothers.

The problem? Well, there wasn’t one — until new Republican governor Rick Snyder passed a law granting new powers to so-called "emergency managers," outsider officials with the authority to come into a city or school district and make changes as they see fit. Working under Detroit Public Schools’ Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, these emergency managers can be brought in for any of a host of reasons; as Rachel Maddow puts it in the video above, "Under the new law, whoever you elect locally? Totally irrelevant." Our publisher Rinku Sen wrote about Snyder’s law last month, calling it "financial martial law for poor cities."

Catherine Ferguson Academy had been a target for shuttering since last year, despite a twenty-year record of success, and stayed open only through community support and protests. Now, with all 5,466 of Detroit’s public school teachers getting laid off, Catherine Ferguson is on a list of schools to be either turned into charter schools, i.e. sold to and remade by a company with its own agenda, or closed. When students got wind of the impending closure plans, they made the decision to protest; community organization BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) lent support, police were called in, and the day went downhill from there.

Voice of Detroit interviews 17-year-old student and mother Ashley Matthews describing the treatment of the student protesters, many of whom are pregnant, at the hands of police.

"I had sat down, and he yanked me up and slammed me down on my stomach on the floor," Matthews said. "All the girls went berserk, telling him to get off me, but he was just wiping up the floor with me. He pressed his thumbs in my neck, and he tightened the handcuffs so hard that I have bruises there. I cried at first but then I made myself stop."

Matthews said she weighs only 100 lbs. and is often mistaken for being much younger because she is so small. "The officer pushed me up against the police car, with my face against it, and put me in it," Matthews said. "They police didn’t read us our rights even though they told us we were under arrest. Then they were playing ‘good cop, bad cop,’ asking, ‘does your mom know you’re going to jail?’ I told them ‘She knows, I’m fighting for my education, and I want a lawyer.’ I wouldn’t talk to them any more after that."

[…] "All the officers were so rude to us you would have thought we had killed somebody," she said. "They asked us, ‘do you have money, because you’re going to be in jail all weekend.’ They told me it was good I’m 17, because I would have to go on the ‘big block’ and I’d better not be talking that ‘education stuff’ there. They were so mad because it was females standing up. But we have the right to fight for our school, and we were non-violent."

Julianne Hing’s been covering the ongoing battle over public vs. charter schools in Detroit and beyond, but Catherine Ferguson Academy is the first instance I know of in which elections have been so aggressively, and violently, sidestepped in an effort to shut down a public school — as the students themselves protest for the right to their own educations. has a petition, as does Defend Pubic Education.