When the school day ended on April 15th, a group of students and teachers from Detroit Public Schools’ Catherine Ferguson Academy didn’t go home as usual. Instead, they settled in and made themselves comfortable, preparing to occupy their school for as long as possible. CFA is a school for pregnant and mothering teens, one of few of its kind in the country. Thanks to an on-site daycare and on-site prenatal care, young women there are able to integrate motherhood with education. An organic urban farm on the campus offers the students the chance to provide healthy, fresh food for their kids while learning about environmental sustainability at the same time. And while national drop-out rates for pregnant high school students are around 70 percent , CFA boasts an astounding 90 percent graduation rate—and 100 percent of the graduates go on to college. For young women with the odds so severely stacked against them—who, as young women of color, primarily from low-income backgrounds, were already facing an uphill socioeconomic battle even before becoming pregnant–CFA offers hope and opportunity they would never dream of having otherwise. And thanks to Detroit Public Schools’ financial manager Robert Bobb, the school is scheduled to permanently close its doors this summer. That’s why students decided to take matters into their own hands, staging an occupation of the school they love. “When people at my regular high school realized that I was pregnant, I was told my chances of being a success in life were over,” said Ashley Matthews, a junior at CFA. “At Catherine Ferguson, they told me they wouldn’t allow me to be anything BUT a success. I love CFA, and I am prepared to fight to keep it open, not only for myself, but for all the girls who will come behind me.”
I was part of a group of protestors on the outside of the school—ready to speak to media or law enforcement, draw attention to the cause, and support the girls in any way they requested. When I spent some time inside with friends delivering bread and peanut-butter, the girls (some who had their small children inside) were serious and organized, but at the same time in high-spirits. They played CDs over the loudspeaker and danced down the halls as they stockpiled food and water in a classroom and hung signs in the windows that read “We’re Inside CFA And We’re Not Leaving.” They were young girls embarking on an adventure, but at the same time fully aware—probably far more aware than the people in positions of power and privilege—of just what was at stake. And it was completely inspiring to see these girls standing up and taking direct action, refusing to be silent and powerless.
Outside, it wasn’t long before we heard rumors that police were on the way. The students decided they preferred for us to continue supporting them from the outside, and barricaded themselves in the library while we did our best to keep watch at every entrance to the building. Initially just a few officers arrived, followed shortly by news vans. But when it became clear that the occupiers were not going to leave willingly, the officers quickly radioed in for backup. I’ve witnessed abuses and excesses by law enforcement in the past. But I was still shocked to see at least ten police cruisers arrive at the school, while what seemed like dozens of officers stormed in the front doors as if charging in to break up a violent, hostile riot instead of a peaceful, unarmed sit-in being staged by teenage girls. And even still—while they drove their cars up on to the lawn, surrounding us and blaring their sirens in an attempt to disperse the crowd—I kept thinking to myself: there is no way they are going to arrest those girls. It simply seemed too cruel a possibility to even imagine, that after everything these girls had already been through, they would be hauled off to jail—some in front of their small children—for an act of desperate and peaceful resistance, motivated only by a desire to go to school.
Unfortunately, my hopes turned out to be terribly naïve. It’s difficult to even describe the experience of watching those girls—some as young as fourteen—being dragged out of their school in handcuffs. I’ve seen friends taken away in handcuffs for peacefully protesting before; it is an experience that I find induces an adrenaline-fueled mixture of rage and desperation, an impassioned drive for action rolled up in a crushing sense of powerlessness. But watching that same thing happen to such young women—who have already been so disadvantaged by the society we live in—was like that experience multiplied by a thousand. Words fail to articulate how heartbreaking and infuriating it was to witness such a disgusting injustice.
Fortunately, at least, the girls were ticketed and released quickly rather than being slapped with misdemeanor trespassing charges. But that hardly seems like a bright spot when considering how far beyond ridiculous it is that they were ever arrested and taken to jail in the first place. In interviews on the eleven o’clock news, school officials and law enforcement stated that they understood the girls’ frustration, but that this kind of action is no way to go about getting the point across, and suggested that perhaps the girls should instead write financial manager Robert Bobb a letter. What the students of CFA know, of course, and what all successful civil rights activists throughout history have known, is that some things call for more than just writing a letter, signing a petition, putting in a call to a local representative. “Desperate times call for desperate measures” might be a bit of a cliché, but it’s also the truth. CFA is the one thing offering these young mothers—and all those who will come after them—hope for the future. Without this school, chances are they will always struggle just to meet their families’ basic needs, or they will end up dangerously financially dependent on men. CFA offers an alternative. CFA teaches these girls that whatever choices they’ve made, it’s not too late to have dreams and goals and aspirations, and that motherhood needn’t mean giving up on those things. CFA doesn’t treat teen moms as statistics, but as human beings with their own desires and potential. These girls have every reason to feel as though they’re fighting for their lives. And that’s not something to just sit at home and write a letter about. “As a teacher, I can find another job,” said Nicole Conway, a CFA science teacher who made the choice to join her students in the occupation, “but for my students, if Catherine Ferguson closes, there are no alternatives.”
In a city with a graduation rate of just 62 percent–and that’s after a dramatic increase in the past few years—it is painfully ironic that the students of CFA have been criminalized for desperately fighting for an education. But if any good can possibly come of last Friday’s events, I hope at the very least to draw nationwide attention to these young women and their ongoing fight, and to send a message to Robert Bobb not just from Detroit but from around the country that closing CFA is simply unconscionable. The rights of young women to an education are not expendable, and they do not suddenly become expendable when those young women become young mothers.