Cody High School: From Promise to Punishment

Our second entrant into the Third Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest is Matt Kautz, who takes us to a very particular high school in Detroit. The life cycle of this one institution, Kautz shows, offers a peek at the birth of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Detroit’s desegregation case, Milliken v. Bradley, is largely remembered for its national implications because it shielded white suburbs from integration, thus limiting meaningful desegregation throughout the country. While the larger importance of Milliken cannot be understated, the focus on its national legacy has obscured Detroit’s local desegregation story and how white resistance to integration dramatically altered the nature of schooling in the city. White efforts to maintain a segregated school system decreased the district’s funding and led to an expanded police presence in the city’s schools. Moreover, a new code of conduct established during desegregation turned Detroit’s schools into punitive institutions that systematically removed students from classrooms. To understand this transformation, it is helpful to look at the life cycle of Frank Cody High School. As one of the last schools in Detroit to transition from an all-white school, the depth of white resistance at Cody provides insight into how Detroit’s schools became punishers of pupils rather than promoters of promise.

Cody opened on Detroit’s white West Side in 1952 and immediately became an emblem of the district’s inequality. Although schools serving black students in the eastern and central parts of the city were overcrowded and falling into disrepair, the district opened Cody on the West Side, thereby limiting the new state of the art facility and its unique academic opportunities to white students. From the beginning, Cody area residents recognized the privileges of a segregated school system and sought to maintain it. Grassroots mobilization against integrated housing and the racial gerrymandering of the school’s attendance zones preserved the Cody region as an all-white enclave with access to the district’s best resources for over a decade.[i] However, as Detroit’s liberal-labor-black coalition rose to power in the 1960s, the desegregation of schools loomed as a real possibility. Fears of integration spurred Cody area residents to take new steps to maintain their segregated school.

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Members of the nights of the Knights of Columbus, holding signs with Irish family names, marching in Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Detroit, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Throughout the 1960s, white voters on Detroit’s East and West Sides used their political power to oppose raising taxes to increase district funds. By 1960, Detroit’s schools were in a precarious financial situation because the school system’s expenditures were rising at the same time declines in property valuations and white flight decreased the district’s revenue. Thus, in 1963, the school board proposed a millage increase to pay for the looming deficit. But, the measure was voted down, largely on the power of white voters in the northwest and northeast areas of the city. Many of the white residents who opposed the tax increase feared the board might use these new funds to facilitate desegregation. As one white voter put it, “if you think we’re going to vote the Board of Education more money to ship a lot more niggers into white schools, you’re nuts.”[ii] In 1966 and 1972, white voters again voted down millage increases out of fears of desegregation. This unwillingness to adequately fund the city’s schools created an untenable fiscal situation that resulted in school facilities falling further into disrepair, decreases in educational resources, and a hollowed-out curriculum for students.[iii]

Although white voters had successfully squeezed the district’s finances as a means to prevent integration, the more racially liberal school board elected in 1965 presented a new challenge when they voted to desegregate the district’s schools in 1970. Under the approved plan, Cody, along with Redford and Denby High Schools, would face the greatest changes in enrollment as the percentage of black students in the school was expected to increase from 3 to 31 percent. Enraged at the prospect of integration, a group of white parents founded the Citizens Committee for Better Education to repeal the desegregation plan and recall the liberal board members. The group quickly secured over 130,000 signatures on a petition to recall the four board members who voted in favor of the plan. When the recall came to a vote, over 80 percent of those in the Cody area voted in favor of it.[iv]

However, after almost twenty years of successfully maintaining a segregated school, Cody area residents would finally have to confront desegregation. Although the city was not issued a court-order until the fall of 1975, changes in the city’s racial makeup meant black and white students were both attending Cody by 1972. Although the specter of integration following the district court ruling in Milliken had sparked further white flight and cut the district’s white population by more than half, the Cody neighborhood’s concentration of white, municipal workers, who were required by law to live within the city limits, prevented significant demographic change.[v] As a Detroit Free Press story observed, the white city workers in the area were “trapped between their own unwillingness to live among blacks and the city’s requirements that they live in Detroit.”[vi] Therefore, even before court-ordered desegregation began, black and white students attended Cody together. And, the same resistance to desegregation manifested at the ballot box emerged in more violent forms in and around the school.

For instance, one day in 1972 after classes, a group of black students were watching the school’s ROTC practice when a white teacher told them to leave. After the students left and went across the street to play in an open field, a cadre of white students started throwing objects at them. In response to the white students’ assault, the school’s principal called the police to prevent the situation from escalating. As would become common practice, the police only escalated the situation. Armed with riot batons, officers entered the park and arrested eighteen students, both black and white. The police later reported that 500 students had been engaged in the fight and that black students initiated it, despite the principal’s insistence no more than twenty students had engaged in the fight and white students were the instigators.[vii]

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Hugh Grannam, “Police Halt Cody Clash,” Detroit Free Press, April 29, 1972.

Similar attacks continued over the next two years, making police a regular presence in students’ lives. For instance, in the spring of 1974, a teenager who did not attend Cody led a large group of white students to its campus to start a fight. The teen ran through the building shouting racial slurs to draw out the school’s black students. Though police, teachers, and school security guards prevented a fight initially, as the black students turned to go back inside, the teenager ran up and kicked a black student in the back. The group of white students outside began throwing bottles, sparking a massive fight. A day later, an estimated 600 black and white students began fighting in the school’s hallways following the theft of a varsity letterman’s jacket. Police arrested six students, both black and white, and the school closed down for the day. When it opened the next morning, it did so under a massive deployment of city police and board of education security force officers.[viii] In the aftermath of this fighting, Mayor Coleman Young promised a police force on the “troubled campus” for the rest of the school year.[ix]

It is important to note that although police officers were regularly called to neutralize violent manifestations of white resistance to desegregation in and around the school, they regularly escalated the situation. The expansion of a police force notorious for its racism and brutality into the city schools, while intended to combat white racism, instead proved debilitating for black students. By the time court ordered desegregation took place at Cody, police were a common fixture in the school, and arrests at and around the school had become routine.

Furthermore, the school’s responses to racial violence and changes in disciplinary policy following the early years of desegregation augmented the negative effects of expanded law enforcement on campus. Following a report of “anarchy” in the city’s high schools from the superintendent’s desegregation monitoring committee in 1975, Judge DeMaisco doubled down on disciplinary policy with the implementation of a twenty-two page uniform student code of conduct that expanded the variety of suspensionable offenses.[x] In practice, this expansion of disciplinary power took more punitive dimensions inside a school that actively resented the presence of its Black students.

During the 1978-79 school year, Cody suspended 715 of its 3,311 students, issuing 937 total suspensions. Although the school population during the 1980-1981 school year declined to 3,106 students, the number of students suspended increased to 1,064 and its total number of suspensions rose to 1,506.[xi] Yet, despite the committee’s reports of “anarchy” and the violent disturbances on Cody’s campus during the initial years of integration, the overwhelming majority of suspensions occurred for “general prohibited behavior,” such as insubordination, loitering, and the vague “disruptive or other misconduct.” In fact, in the 1980-81 school year, 87 percent of suspensions were for these behaviors. And, of the 606 students expelled from Cody between 1979 and 1981, 74 percent were removed for “general prohibited behavior” and truancy.[xii] The rise in suspensions and expulsions correlated with unprecedented levels of attrition. While 1,385 ninth grade students entered Cody’s halls in the 1977-78 school year, only 470 remained by their senior year.[xiii]

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Detroit, Mich., Northwestern High School, main stairway, 1911, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although the uniform code of conduct had been implemented to combat the disproportionate deployment of discipline that often followed desegregation attempts, a study by the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that Detroit school officials disproportionately punished black students.[xiv] For that reason, it is not surprising that school disciplinary measures became more punitive as the percentage of black students at Cody increased from just over twenty percent in 1973 to 78 percent in 1980. As a result, Cody students attended a police patrolled school that suspended a third of its students and expelled almost one in ten.[xv] The disciplinary changes amidst massive resistance to desegregation created a punitive environment that limited the educational opportunity of black students and increased their contact with police.

Somehow, despite the constant presence of police and the indiscriminate use of disciplinary power at the school, many of Cody’s students continued to grow academically. In 1981, only 66.5 percent of Cody’s students passed Michigan’s state assessment, but, by 1985, almost 73 percent of students passed. However, the same teachers who doled out discipline so freely also devalued students’ coursework. Contrary to the gains measured on the state’s assessment, the average GPA at Cody High School in 1985 was only a 1.61.[xvi] A disciplinary system established during massive resistance to desegregation had created a statistical narrative that prevented teachers from seeing the academic achievement of their own students. Thus, the school continued to focus on punishing its students, rather than helping them realize their potential. The mass attrition of students eventually led the school’s label as a “dropout factory.”[xvii]

Between 1952 and 1982, Frank Cody High School transformed from a cutting-edge educational institution to one that systematically removed students from the classroom. The normalization of suspension and expulsion persisted for decades. In 2008, 75 percent of Cody’s students dropped out prior to graduation, sparking a small schools reform in the campus meant to curb dropout and suspension rates. As a result, Cody transitioned from one comprehensive high school with a massive student body to five different schools with small enrollments to personalize students’ educational experience. While this effort led to increased graduation rates, the Cody campus still suspends 31 percent of its students.[xviii]

It is important to remember Cody’s disciplinary practices have historical roots, and were powerfully shaped by white resistance to desegregation. Throughout Cody’s history, this resistance has played a crucial role in expanding and limiting students’ educational opportunities. As the district’s demographics changed, Cody’s white students and their families sought to maintain a segregated school in detrimental ways. Not only did white resistance to adequately fund Detroit’s schools in the 1960s have long lasting consequences, but so did the racist violence that met black students as they entered formerly segregated spaces. In turn, that violence heightened police presence at the city’s schools. Furthermore, the new code of conduct’s authorization of unlimited disciplinary power for even minor offenses proved destructive. The implementation of the code of conduct in a school filled with racial resentment expanded disciplinary power in profound ways that have lasted beyond Detroit’s battle for desegregation and into the present.

KautzHeadshotMatt Kautz is a doctoral student in History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to graduate school, Matt was a high school teacher in Detroit and Chicago. His current research focuses on the changes in urban school discipline during the era of desegregation and how this punitive turn shaped the school-to-prison pipeline.


Featured image (at top): Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, “Everett Cody High School,” Flickr, January 14, 2011.

[i] For more about the violent nature of resistance to integrated living see Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis. In 1965, 55 percent of the district’s students were black, but 99 percent of Cody’s students were white: Racial Census October, 1965, Box 6, Folder 2, The Detroit Public Schools Community Relations Division Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[ii] Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 266-268.

[iii] Mirel, 401-405.

[iv] Mirel, 343.

[v] Mirel, 387.

[vi] Jeff Counts and Marco Trbovich, “Cody Area Life: A Relic of 50s,” Detroit Free Press, Mar. 18, 1973.

[vii] Michael Graham and John Griffith, “Police Halt Cody Clash,” Detroit Free Press, Apr. 29, 1972.

[viii] Bill Michelmore, “Cody High Will Reopen Today,” Detroit Free Press, May 31, 1974; Billy Bowles, “Crisis Bares Cody’s Area Soul,” Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1974.

[ix] Peter Benjaminson, “Mayor Sounds Off About Cody Clash and Car Dispute,” Detroit Free Press, June 4, 1974.

[x] Detroit Public Schools, Uniform Code of Conduct, 1976, Box 59, Folder 24, Detroit Human Rights Commission, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. The code of conduct listed the offenses for which school officials could issue suspensions, including: insubordination; verbal abuse; loitering/trespassing; refusal to identify self; smoking in school or on school property; truancy; gambling; student demonstrations; and disruptive or other misconduct.

[xi] High School Report, Box 1, Folder 2, Wayne State University College of Education Dean’s Office: DPS Monitoring Commission on Desegregation, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[xii] High School Report.

[xiii] High School Report.

[xiv] United States Commission on Civil Rights, Desegregation of the Nation’s Schools, a Status Report (Washington: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1979), 42-43.

[xv] High School Student Attrition, Box 1, Folder 2, Wayne State University College of Education Dean’s Office: DPS Monitoring Commission on Desegregation, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[xvi] Patricia Montemurri, “Detroit’s Student Average below C, Despite Progress,” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 18, 1985.

[xvii] “Graduate to Solutions,” Detroit Free Press, May 4, 2008.

[xviii] U.S. Department of Education. Office of Civil Rights. Discipline and Disability (Washington: Office of Civil Rights, 2015). https://ocrdata.ed.gov/

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