Leading region in suspended students, Michigan looks to ease schools’ zero-tolerance policies
Starting with the next school year, K-12 officials in Michigan will be required to consider certain factors before suspending or expelling students, under a set of new laws that aim to reduce the number of students who are removed from school.
“Public education is a great way to improve people’s lives, but that requires them to be in school,” says Rep. Adam Zemke, who was part of a bipartisan group of legislators that led efforts to pass the bills (HB 5618-5621 and HB 5693-5695) late last year.
The list of factors to be considered will include the severity of the offense, the student’s age and disciplinary history, and whether he or she has a disability. Also, with the new laws in place, Michigan schools will no longer have to enforce zero-tolerance policies — under which an offending student had to be removed from school— for certain offenses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan schools expelled 1,284 students under zero-tolerance policies in 2011 — more than any other Midwestern state (see map).
Rep. Andy Schor, who led the legislative effort, hopes reducing the number of students who are removed from school will address a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Kids are getting expelled, getting into trouble on the streets, and then going to prison,” Schor says.
This trend is not unique to Michigan. A 2011 report from The Council of State Governments Justice Center found that public school students in Texas who were removed from school for a discretionary violation were nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year. Michigan’s zero-tolerance policies were enacted in the 1990s, part of a nationwide trend targeting violence in schools. Unfortunately, Schor says, those laws were so strict that they started capturing situations where there wasn’t intent to harm.
“In committee, we heard stories about kids being suspended or expelled because they live in rural areas and accidentally brought a hunting knife in their backpack,” says Schor, whose own son was suspended from school for three days after bringing a Swiss Army knife to school to replace his classroom’s broken pencil sharpener.
To prevent situations like this, the new laws require school officials to operate under the “rebuttable presumption” that suspension or expulsion is not justified, with certain exceptions. Michigan also will require its local schools to consider using restorative practices, which emphasize repairing the harm to the victim and the school community caused by a student’s misconduct, as an alternative to removing a student from school. (One example of a restorative practice would be a conference between the victim and offender.) These practices would address offenses such as bullying, class disruption, damage to property or harassment.
In 2015, Illinois enacted legislation (SB 100) that eliminated zero-tolerance policies for all but the most serious offenses. Under the law, too, schools must exhaust all non-exclusionary methods of discipline — such as in-school suspension, detention or loss of privileges — before removing the student.
Article written by Katelyn Tye, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Education Committee.