By DARCIE MORAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan police officers are hoping to lessen the frequency of suspensions and expulsions in the state’s schools to help fight crime.
The problem with out-of-school suspensions is students might not be supervised when they are told not to come to school, said Grand Rapids Police Department Lt. Dave Schnurstein.
“Sending them home can be an adequate punishment but in many households, and certainly in many lower income households, the kids are just home alone,” Schnurstein said. “Some kids, that’s what they’re hoping for.
“When they’re not at school then they have the opportunity to get in criminal acts,” he said.
Finding alternatives is a challenge that Michigan school and police groups are attempting to tackle.
The number of Michigan school suspensions is up from about 107,000 in the 2009-2010 year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
The department reports that about 110,000 students in Michigan were suspended from school in the 2011-2012 school year. Now law enforcement groups are encouraging schools to find alternative forms of discipline to keep kids in school and away from a life of crime.
The Michigan chapter of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization of law enforcement officials and crime survivors, recently issued a call to reduce school suspensions and expulsions. But they are only the latest organization to raise this issue.
Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Education and a Michigan School Discipline Task Force developed a policy to prevent behavior issues and avoid the need for suspensions and expulsions.
The policy, which will be up for approval in May, suggests using a tiered approach to discipline starting with prevention and progressing to counseling, conflict resolution, mediation and group interventions.
The Obama administration also recently recommended that schools not use policies that require police to deal with routine discipline. That action was also aimed at avoiding racial disparities in punishment. Black students are punished more frequently and more harshly, according to data compiled by U.S. Department of Education.
Alternatives to suspension could include involving parents in discipline or provide family counseling when disciplinary problems start at home, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie said. But schools might not have the funds to make it happen.
“The biggest thing, when we talk about spending money, is we have to think about the consequences of not doing the right thing,” said Mackie, who is a state co-chair for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. “If I get worked out of a job, I’m comfortable with that.”
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids advocates the use of the Good Behavior Game, in which a class is split up evenly and the team with the best behavior is rewarded at the end of the day.
Other suggested programs included the Functional Family Therapy, which is a 12-session behavior intervention program.
While Schnurstein said there is no “one size fits all” solution to discipline in schools, options other than suspensions and expulsions should be investigated.
Alternative schools for struggling students appear to have been successful in Kent County, said Schnurstein, also a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
High schools in the Harbor Springs area send students to alternative schools during their suspension, something Harbor Springs Police Chief Dan Branson said has been effective in keeping students out of trouble and caught up on schoolwork.
Branson, also a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said he was unaware of concerns with the number of suspensions in the state until the group issued a press release.
Mackie knows firsthand that there is a connection between students who become criminals and student who had disciplinary issues in school.
“We see a lot of kids that have dropped out of school,” Mackie said. “It’s something that starts very early.”
Frequent suspensions makes school uninviting for children and makes dropping out more likely, said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count in Michigan. The program is part of a national effort to improve children’s well-being.
“If we don’t address the problem within the education system, they end up on the streets (and) they become a law enforcement problem,” Zehnder-Merrell said.
She said part of the issue lies in lack of mental health and support services in schools, as well as teachers dealing with larger classes.
The challenge is balancing the needs of problem students with those of other students, Schnurstein said.
“(School) is the only place that will give them any chance to succeed,” Schnurstein said. “At the same time the school has to have the ability to remove a distraction from everyone else in the classroom.
“We cannot arrest our way out of some of these problems,” he said. “It costs more later on to incarcerate them than to educate them.”
By DARCIE MORAN