State May Urge Schools to Rethink Zero-Tolerance Rules for Students
Lori Huggins, Detroit Free Press, 06/12/2012
Long concerned by what they say is an alarming rate of suspensions and expulsions in Michigan schools, members of the state Board of Education are set to act today on a resolution that would call on schools to rethink their zero-tolerance policies.
If approved by the eight-member board, schools would be urged to "adopt discipline policies without mandated suspension or expulsion for issues that do not involve weapons."
Students who bring guns to school, get into physical altercations or sexually assault other students or staff, by law, must be suspended or expelled. And state officials say that shouldn't change.
What they want to address are students who are being booted out of school for nonviolent offenses, like being chronically disobedient or being insubordinate, then falling behind and sometimes dropping out.
"It's important for us to determine why is it that these discipline issues exist, what is creating this situation, and what ... we need to do to address that," said state board secretary Nancy Danhof. She also is executive director of the Todd Martin Development Fund, which works with at-risk Lansing-area youths.
The resolution would be advisory only because the board cannot mandate school districts change their policies.
A chief concern -- from board members, Michigan Department of Education (MDE) officials and student advocates -- is what happens when kids who are nonviolent offenders are suspended or expelled.
There were more than 1,400 expulsions during the 2010-11 school year. And the bulk of them, 938 expulsions, were for 100 days or more, effectively putting those students a year behind. In 138 of those cases, students were expelled permanently.
The state does not keep comparable reliable data on suspensions because schools aren't required to report it.
From school to prison?
Several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, have for years urged the MDE to address the impact of zero-tolerance policies.
In 2009, the ACLU of Michigan issued a report in which they said the inflexibility of zero-tolerance policies is creating a school-to-prison pipeline for many kids.
"The issue has become one of a punitive philosophy towards discipline. ... Instead of addressing the issues, school districts are now coming with more of a heavy hand and laying down policies that end up getting (students) pushed out," said Rodd Monts, field director at the ACLU of Michigan.
The impact, Monts said, "is severe."
The likelihood of a student who has been suspended or expelled graduating on time shrinks drastically. And the problem is particularly acute for low-income students, as well as African-American and Hispanic students, who nationwide receive a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions, Monts said.
"Ultimately, students are missing a large number of days of school because they're not in the classroom," said Kyle Guerrant, director of the office of school support services at the MDE.
And that could put them further behind during a time when schools, too, face penalties if they don't show enough student academic growth. In the end, that may be the best argument for addressing the number of suspensions and expulsions, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan said during a May meeting of the board.
"It's sinking in deeply that you can't meet these (academic goals) if students don't have learning time," Flanagan said.
Who's kicked out
The federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 mandates that students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year. Michigan -- and many other states -- goes further, requiring expulsions for students who bring any weapon to school. Students also can be suspended or expelled for physical assault, verbal assault against a school employee, arson, criminal sexual conduct, bomb threats and for gross misconduct or persistent disobedience.
Danhof said many school districts have gone even further, suspending and expelling kids for things not spelled out in the state statute -- like protests.
Brad Banasik, legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said suspending and expelling students is a difficult decision for local school board members and administrators.
"They don't take those types of decisions lightly," he said. "I don't see many boards out there that are going through with expulsions or suspensions without considering exceptions."
Which is important, experts like Monts said, because kids are getting suspended and expelled for more behavior-related issues, like insubordination, disrespect and loitering.
"The majority of expulsions are not because of violent offenses," said Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan. "You have kids who are making mistakes, and that's what kids do. As adults, we're supposed to use those mistakes as learning opportunities."
Other ways to discipline
They and others want to see schools focus on prevention and alternate ways of disciplining students for incidents that don't impact the safety of schools. Those include programs that work on building relationships, resolving conflicts, rewarding good behavior and changing the culture in schools.
"We can't keep losing as many kids as we're losing a year," Bob Higgins, safe schools consultant at the MDE, said at the May state board meeting. "We simply can't afford to keep doing that."
More Details: Rules on suspension or expulsion
State law spells out the following circumstances for a student to be suspended or expelled:
• A student in sixth grade or above who physically assaults another student at school must be suspended or expelled for up to 180 days. A student in sixth grade or above who physically assaults an employee must be expelled permanently.
• A student who possesses a weapon, commits arson or commits criminal sexual conduct in a school building or on school grounds should be expelled permanently. The parent or the student, if 18 or older, can petition for reinstatement.
• A student can be suspended or expelled if guilty of gross misconduct or persistent disobedience.
• A student in sixth grade or above who commits a verbal assault against a school employee or makes a bomb threat or similar threat directed at a school building should be suspended or expelled for a period that is up to the discretion of the district.
More Details: Actions the state could request
A draft resolution the state Board of Education will consider urges school districts to take the following actions:
• Review existing zero-tolerance policies that go above and beyond what is required by law; limit the number of offenses that mandate suspension and referral to law enforcement to those that directly impact student and employee safety.
• Ensure educators are aware that Michigan law provides four exceptions to laws requiring zero tolerance for weapons.
• Implement or expand the use of proven alternative behavior-management strategies.
Originally published here