House votes to ease ‘zero tolerance’ school discipline

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan schools would be directed to ease “zero-tolerance” discipline policies in an attempt to reduce student suspensions and expulsions under legislation the state House approved Thursday.

The bipartisan seven-bill bill package, approved in a series of mostly unanimous votes, would require schools to consider individual factors and other discipline options before suspending or expelling students for most offenses.

The options would include so-called “restorative practices,” which typically include voluntary conferences where victims and offenders discuss an incident and may require students to apologize, participate in community service or pay restitution.

“These bills will provide flexibility for our schools,” said Rep. Andy Schor, D-East Lansing, who sponsored one of the measures. “If a child has a weapon with intent, or their situation merits it, then they should be suspended, possibly even expelled. But we do need to provide that common sense and flexibility.”

The issue is personal for Schor, who told colleagues his son was suspended after bringing a jackknife to school and using it to sharpen his pencil because the classroom sharpener was broken.

“I can tell you as a parent and dad, he got in a whole lot of trouble for taking my Swiss Army knife, but I don’t know if suspending him for several days was really the right answer,” he said.

A student who brings a gun to school would continue to face permanent expulsion under the bills, but the school board would not be required to oust students who had a clean record and did not know they possessed a weapon, did not know an object they possess would be considered a dangerous weapon or brought a weapon to school at the suggestion of school or police authorities.

In most cases, schools would be directed to consider a student’s age, discipline history, disability status and the seriousness of the offense before a suspension or expulsion.

Disabled and minority students are disproportionately affected by strict suspension and expulsion policies, according to the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, which encouraged schools to consider restorative justice programs as part of a guidance memo on discrimination-free discipline policies.

“Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structures systems of positive interventions,” according to the department’s Dear Colleague letter.

More than 25 percent of male students suspended in Michigan during the 2011-12 school year were black, according to federal statistics. Twelve percent were Hispanic, 13 percent were mixed race and eight percent were white. Among females, 16 percent of suspended students were black students, compared with three percent for whites.

Under current law, students who are permanently expelled can petition a school board to reinstate them after 180 days, but many families are not aware the option exists, said Shelli Weisberg with the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“If there’s any place that should be modeling teaching and due process, it’s our schools,” Weisberg said. “Many of these students who get kicked out end up in the criminal justice system, where they’re also treated as though they’re not citizens. We’re wasting money sending these kids to jail instead of educating them.”

The schools discipline legislation now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

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