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Michigan has one of the harshest school discipline laws in the country, but not for long

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Michigan's zero tolerance policies were part of a 'tough on discipline' trend that was big in the 1990s, but countless studies since then have shown thatzero tolerance doesn't work and many states have amended their school discipline laws to reflect that.

And now, starting with the 2017-18 school year, Michigan will also ease up on its discipline policies.

When Gabby Collins started school last fall, she had a really good feeling about eighth grade. She thought this would be "my year when I changed and be all good ‘cause last year I did get in a lot of trouble, and I thought this year would be my year when I just don’t get in no trouble."

Things started off great. Gabby has a learning disability and behavior issues, all documented in her individualized education plan as required by federal law, and she often struggles in school. But Gabby’s mom, Dionne Collins, says Gabby was turning things around at the beginning of the school year. Her grades were improving and so was her behavior, thanks to a lot of hard work at home and some outside counseling.

"She was getting positive reports from teachers," says Collins. "The assistant principal even called me and told me because he was really impressed on seeing her positive leadership this year."

But that all changed in December. Gabby says she and her friends were playing around after lunch one day and one of them had an empty plastic water bottle, which they were throwing it at each other for fun. Gabby says when she tried to throw it down the hall at some boys she accidentally hit a teacher instead on the head. "So then that’s why I got expelled," she explains.

She got kicked out of school -- permanently expelled -- for 180 days for accidentally hitting a teacher with a plastic water bottle. 

Gabby goes to public school in Romulus, outside Detroit. The district didn’t want to comment for the story citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but you can read the district's code of conduct here.

According to documents obtained by Michigan Radio, the district officially classified the water bottle incident as an "assault committed against school personnel." Under Michigan's zero tolerance policy, if you assault a teacher it'san automatic 180-day expulsion and you can't attend any other public school in the state.

Gabby and her older sister LaTaysia, a sophomore who also has a disability, were both expelled and suspended from Romulus public schools this year for incidents described by the school as "assault" on school personnel. Lawyers with the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School represented both young women and got the district to withdraw the expulsion and suspension in exchange for the girls staying on home instruction through the end of the school year and withdrawing from the district.

Peri Stone-Palmquist runs the Student Advocacy Center in Michigan, and she’s lobbied for years to get the state to drop its zero tolerance law. Kicking a student out for 180 days is "just a ridiculous amount of time to have any student out of school," says Stone-Palmquist. "It’s debilitating, it’s just the worst possible option."

There’s loads of research that shows zero tolerance laws disproportionately target students like Gabby -- students of color and students with disabilities, and pushing kids out can lead to more dropouts. Many believe strict school discipline policies are a major contributing factor in the school-to-prison pipeline.

So the Michigan legislature, in a rare show of bipartisan support, passed a new law last December that effectively gets rid of zero tolerance starting with the 2017-18 school year. The law says the only thing that will automatically get you kicked out is if you bring a firearm to a "weapon free school zone." It defines expulsion as 60 days or more, and bans the use of seclusion and restraint except in emergency situations. Districts will have to adjust their student handbooks and codes of conduct accordingly.

The law also includes something called a "rebuttable presumption," which basically says any suspension over ten days is not justified unless proven otherwise.

State representative Adam Zemke is one of the bill’s sponsors and he says the rebuttable presumption is the "higher bar" that will ensure suspensions and expulsions are no longer the default, but rather "the last resort."

Under the new policy, schools will have to look at every incident or infraction on a case-by-case basis and take the following seven factors into consideration: 

  • The pupil’s age.
  • The pupil’s disciplinary history.
  • Whether the pupil is a student with a disability.
  • The seriousness of the violation or behavior committed by the pupil.
  • Whether the violation or behavior committed by the pupil threatened the safety of any pupil or staff member.
  • Whether restorative practices will be used to address the violation or behavior committed by the pupil.
  • Whether a lesser intervention would properly address the violation or behavior committed by the pupil

Restorative practices include things like conflict resolution and peer mediation; instead of rules and discipline, restorative justice shifts the focus to repairing relationships. 

In other words: if a kid throws an empty plastic water bottle down the hall and accidentally hits a teacher, they might have to write a letter to their teacher and apologize, maybe do some community service. If they do get kicked out for longer than ten days, the school will have to prove via documentation that they considered all seven factors above and that suspension or expulsion was being used as a last resort.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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