Ease up on zero tolerance in schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Last month, a 12-year-old student at a middle school in the small town of Coldwater discovered the hard way what zero tolerance means.

He inadvertently brought a pocket knife to school. According to his mother, it wasn’t even his—it was in a backpack recently purchased from Goodwill.

Still he got suspended for 180 days.

School administrators ended up reducing that to 30 days. That’s an extreme punishment for a child who didn’t intentionally do anything dangerous.

Schools are under increasing pressure to raise test scores and boost graduation rates. They are also getting intense scrutiny from various levels of government to make sure they discipline students correctly.

But come on. Kicking kids out of school for such silly reasons is what some Michigan lawmakers are working to avoid with proposed new laws.

“These bills help utilize common sense in dealing with incidents in schools, rather than automatically penalizing a student, regardless of intention,” says Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan legislation that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action.

State law and consequently public school handbooks forbid certain behavior, including weapon possession, arson and physical assault, among other actions.

Yet as the Coldwater middle schooler found out, this pocket knife was considered “a dangerous weapon in a weapon-free school zone.”

School safety is a paramount concern for students, parents, teachers and administrators. Finding the balance between keeping everyone at school safe while working to keep kids in school, however, isn’t easy.

The bills would end schools’ reliance on zero tolerance policies, which have come to embrace a wider array of bad behavior.

The legislation instructs school administrators and school boards to expel and suspend students as a last resort, rather than as common practice. It also calls for taking the individual incident and student into account, considering factors such as whether it was a first offense. The exception is for guns.

One bill would place more emphasis on “restorative justice” practices, which seeks resolution at school. Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, sponsor of that bill, says federal and state zero tolerance policies, which arose out of violent school episodes in the 1990s, have “created an environment where people feel like they have to expel a student. This (bill) creates a higher bar for schools to remove a student.”

The lawmakers are right to pursue some reforms, but some of the bills may swing too far in the other direction.

It’s true that when students are suspended they are more likely to drop out or get in trouble with the law. But the safety and learning environment for other students—and their teachers—must also be considered.

Some school associations, including the Michigan Association of Schools Boards, have raised concerns over the bills, as have some lawmakers, who believe the current law gives schools enough flexibility.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, says he supports the legislation in theory, but is opposed overall.

“It’s another shot at local control,” Wigent says.

Lawmakers should address these concerns, while applying common sense to school discipline.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques