Mich. schools move to reduce suspensions, expulsions

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Suspensions and expulsions are no longer the go-to mandatory tool for student discipline in the Farmington School District.

School leaders were forced to scrap that approach after the district was placed on a state watch list in 2013 for disproportionally disciplining black males in special education programs.

Today, “restorative practices” in the district and around the state are being used to address conflict and misconduct to get students to talk to each other and learn empathy and personal responsibility, instead of sending them home with suspensions or kicking them out of school. It’s a philosophy that aims to repair harm to the victim rather than simply punish the offender.

For the first time this school year, all Michigan school districts are required to consider restorative practices in punishments. It’s part of a new rule approved by state lawmakers in 2016 to reduce the number of school suspensions and expulsions.

In Farmington, it works like this: when a student gets in trouble, a small team — which includes student, the victim of the incident, a trained school staffer and parents — sit in a private, neutral space, in chairs formed into a circle. The door is closed. Everybody gets a turn to talk about what happened, what could have been done differently and what can be done to make things right and move forward.

Read more: 12 Michigan school districts over-suspend students

Students are always consulted privately first, before a circle is set up. In rare cases, some have said no, school officials said. That’s when the school works with each student individually and moves forward with other discipline or resolutions. But more than 90 percent students agree to a circle and want to talk it out, said Valada Sargent, a certified restorative practice facilitator in the district.

“We are trying to get people to a place of understanding from their perspective. We ultimately get to the question of what needs to happen to make things right, what do we need to do to hit reset. That is key,” Sargent said.

In the last two schools years, the district has held 1,084 restorative practice conferences, which state officials say saved 1,159 suspension days in that time, according to data obtained by The Detroit News.

According to the district, 104 circle conversations were held in the last two school years to address issues such as bullying, anger management, racial incidents, relationships and the use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes or other smoking devices.

Districts are placed on a state watch list if they are disciplining special education students in a subgroup — such as black males — three times more than the rate they discipline other groups, based on population size. Only special education students are monitored by the state regarding discipline rates.

There are 12 on the list this year. Farmington remained on the list for five years. After using restorative practices since 2014, it was removed from the list in May.

The district still suspended special education students during the last two years — 108 black and 104 white — but because its numbers are more proportional, it was removed from the list.

“I’ve learned how valuable these restoration practices are to be able to have an alternative to suspension that allows for respect an dignity and everybody’s voice in the room,” Farmington Schools Superintendent George Heitsch said.

“Students are much quicker to restore than adults. Students are open to the possibility that relationships can be repaired, and they don’t have as many fixed ideas of what right and wrong is.”

Parent Dawn Strange wanted prosecutors to file criminal charges against a student who attacked her ninth-grade son inside Farmington High last year. She was ready to hire a lawyer to sue the family, too.

Her son had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance from school and was treated for a deep concussion after being attacked in a locker room by another student.

Strange met Sargent, who offered the option of letting the two boys talk to each other in a circle using restorative practices.

Knowing school officials supported her and her son as the victim — video in a school hallway captured the other student following her son around and hitting him in the back of the head — Strange said she felt comfortable trying this different version of justice.

“The other mother was very upset and worried about my son. She was furious at her son for messing with my son. I said I wanted to talk to her. I am a reasonable person,” Strange said.

In a circle sat Strange and her son, the other student and his mother and Sargent.

“The boys got really deep and the other boy started crying. He had a nice apology for (my son) and read him a letter. It really brought tears to my eyes that day. The boy was so sorry. He was tricked into that. He made a really bad decision,” Strange said.

The other student still served a suspension for his role in the attack. After the session, she decided not to seek criminal charges or file a lawsuit.

“At the end of the session, there was a lot of tears and a lot of laughter. Her technique is remarkable. She got the boys to understand each other. They are now friends. They both learned a lesson in life to make them good men when they are older,” she said.

Mandating consideration of restorative practices in schools marks a movement away from “zero tolerance” by requiring schools to consider some factors and alternatives before suspending or expelling students, Birmingham-based attorney Joseph B. Urban said.

Urban, who has been advising Michigan school districts on how to transition to restorative practices, said restorative justice is a philosophy and disciplinary practice that defines accountability as “healing the harm rather than taking the punishment.”

“It brings together those who cause harm with those they've hurt in facilitated interventions designed to acknowledge the harm and identify appropriate actions to make things right as much as possible,” Urban said.

Urban said zero tolerance for public schools was instituted in the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre because it provided harsh punishment — usually suspension or expulsion — when students break certain rules. Many students who are suspended for a length of time or expelled end up in the criminal justice system, he said.

State Rep. Andy Schor, D-East Lansing, sponsored one of the measures after his elementary-age his son was suspended after bringing a jackknife to school and using it to sharpen his pencil because the classroom sharpener was broken. Schor said the state needed “common sense and flexibility” when it came to student discipline.

The new Michigan law requires school officials to consider seven factors in discipline, such as a student's age, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation before suspending or expelling a student. The new rules also limit the number of days a student can be expelled for disciplinary reasons to fewer than 60.

Districts that do not consider the restorative justice factors could face a court challenge from parents, Urban said. A court could determine the discipline is invalid, he said.

The new rules end state-mandated expulsions for everything but offenses involving firearms, with some exceptions.

Under the new law, if any of the four factors are in place, expulsion becomes discretionary: the firearm was not possessed for use as a weapon, the student didn’t knowingly possess the firearm, the student didn’t have reason to know the object was a firearm or the firearm was possessed at the suggestion of authorities.

Also under the law, if a student has no history of suspension or expulsion and one of the four factors are met, expulsion is not justified.

State Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, did not like that portion of the bill, which he says takes away the discretion of local school districts.

The package of bills had bipartisan support when it was overwhelming approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2016. Greimel was the sole no vote on a portion of the package.

“ There may be some exceptions but that should be left to the discretion of the school. This bill actually prevents expulsion in certain circumstances,” he said. “To me, bringing a gun to school is a very serious offense, and a student should be expelled regardless of their history.”

Officials with the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan said the state’s harsh discipline code mandated expulsion for a large number of offenses with the intent of keeping students safe, but evidence showed that too many students were being removed and that districts often felt their hands were tied and were forced to expel.

The Ypsilanti-based nonprofit provide education advocacy and support with a focus on economically disadvantaged youth and youth impacted by school discipline and zero tolerance.

The result was students of color and students with disabilities were at greater risk of dropping out and were not given support to address the problems that led to the discipline, said Peri Stone-Palmquist, the center’s executive director.

Telephone calls to the center’s office from parents and school officials have gone up 70 percent since restorative practice became part of the law in August, Stone-Palmquist said.

“One thing we have noticed pretty consistently is that districts are not documenting their consideration of the seven factors to families. We are having to ask for it,” she said.

Based on calls she is getting from parents this school year, some districts are not taking action yet to move toward the law’s new requirements, but it is early in the process, she said.

The nonprofit published a guide and toolkit for districts who need help making the transition to the law.

After being cited by the state, the Farmington district assembled a task force in 2014, said Sargent, a former teacher in the district.

“Our task was to dig deep to finding an alternative to suspensions because we want to be seen as an institution of learning and not a place that just kicks our kids out,” Sargent said.

District officials began understanding the practice in the 2014-15 school year and today the district has six restorative practices facilitators.

The district also uses “problem-solving circles” aimed at preventing incidents or “peace circles” in which students are provided an opportunity to connect before something bad happens, Sargent says. Students will often stop by her office and ask for a circle.

In a recent circle, five Farmington High students gathered for a voluntary “girls’ talk” with Sargent. The teens expressed their views on body images and how to respond to negative words.

“It’s an eye-opener for me to see how all the girls think and what they like. Everybody needs someone to talk to, so this is a good circle for that,” high school senior Armani Watkins said.

The circles and restorative practices policy empower students to go through the process of questioning, reflection and self-regulation, Sargent said.

“Sadly some people are stuck in ‘Let’s get the kids. Let’s teach them,’” Sargent said. “We have to recognize there is a space for empathy and relationship building and repair ... because they’re all our kids. We can’t vilify one group and praise the other.”