Bill to reduce zero-tolerance policies in schools has bipartisan support

BY CAITLIN DeLUCA

Capital News Service

LANSING — A bill aimed at reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions of students in Michigan schools could move to the Senate floor soon.

In Michigan, a zero-tolerance policy covers a plethora of situations in schools, including physical violence, possession of any weapon, tobacco, alcohol and bomb or similar threats.

That means that a student who commits any of those behaviors must be suspended or expelled for at least a year. The mandatory punishment leaves the schools’ hands tied.

The bill would remove mandatory suspensions or expulsions for some of these misbehaviors. It would exclude firearms, which are included in a zero-tolerance policy mandated by the federal government.

The bill would leave the decision up to the district, where administrators would have to consider factors such as age, history of discipline, disability and intent of the action.

The legislation also requires districts to consider the use of “restorative” measures, rather than just suspension or expulsion, though restorative measures could also be used hand in hand with a suspension or expulsion.

In the 2014-15 school year, 1,347 students were expelled in Michigan schools. In 45 percent of the cases, the expulsion was for almost a full school year, which is 180 days. In 8 percent of the cases, the expulsion was permanent.

The bill has received support from organizations including the Michigan Association of School Boards.

“This law doesn’t just cover weapons at this point. It’s assault on a teacher, it’s assault in the school. There’s all sorts of different sections of law that deal with zero tolerance, so this would allow schools a lot more flexibility in how they deal with disciplinary issues and give more chances for the child to remain in school, but still address what caused the disciplinary thing in the first place,” said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the school boards association.

Shelli Weisberg, legislative director of the ACLU of Michigan, said she has been working on changing this law for six years.

“Michigan has a huge range of behaviors that can get you automatically expelled from your school for an entire year, and what we found…was it went from about 700 expulsions in Michigan in the late ‘90s — early 2000’s before the law was changed, and we now have thousands of kids that are just automatically expelled from school for a variety of those behaviors,” Weisberg said.

Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, who co-sponsored the bill, said it was important that the school should have leeway to decide how to reform the student.

“This is not to say that bad behavior should be tolerated — that’s not what we’re after — but the bottom line is having something on the state statute that says ‘if you do x, y or z then you must be removed from school,’ is not a good way to fix bad behavior,” Zemke said.

Zemke is thrilled with the support from both parties this bill has gotten.

“I’m very excited that there’s been such a bipartisan effort in this… it’s been exciting and refreshing to see it work its way through,” Zemke said.

Weisberg spoke positively about the bipartisan support.

“As much as the Democrats supported making the law more logical…the Republicans have been very supportive of making sure students get due process,” Weisberg said.

The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be brought up in September.