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Michigan advocacy groups say uptick in suspensions and expulsions result of readjustment to in-person learning

School desks
Flickr user Frank Juarez/Flickr

Advocacy groups and education lawyers say that expulsions and suspensions from schools have spiked statewide.

The Michigan Department of Education says that expulsion data for this year will not be available for several months.

Peri Stone-Palmquist is the director of Student Advocacy Center. She said calls to their statewide hotline related to students being removed from school have increased by 600% from 2019.

“It seems to track with what we're hearing, both from families and from school administrators, and teachers,” Stone-Palmquist said. “And it makes some sense if you think about (how) our schools are very much in crisis right now.”

She said staffing shortages in schools contribute to the increase in expulsions and suspensions. Stone-Palmquist also said anxiety among students as they readjust to in-person school settings could be to blame.

“It's not shocking that young people who are experiencing a lot of anxiety and things like that, and trying to get used to being in a structured setting during the day, that there would be behavioral changes,” Stone-Palmquist said.

Stone-Palmquist said the most common reason the group has noticed for removals this year is fighting followed by threats to the school and drugs or vaping.

But Miller Johnson Attorneys and Counselors, a Detroit law firm representing school districts across the state in student discipline issues, also said they noticed the uptick in expulsions and suspensions.

Kevin Sutton, a partner with the law firm and head of Miller Johnson’s education group, said it's due to more “serious behavior” from students. He noted that his observations are more anecdotal than they are empirical.

“I think we've got a lot of students who are adjusting to being back in person,” Sutton said. “They've been at home, they've really been relatively isolated and now, they're in a school building all day. Just like we see after the summer-- students come back after a summer away, kind of takes a few weeks, maybe a month or so to kind of get back into the flow and appreciate the structure of the school day. I think we sort of have that but exacerbated exponentially.”

This serious behavior, he said, has included a number of incidents with weapons, serious physical altercations, sexual misconduct and even one instance of a student bringing a firearm to school.

Michigan school districts have been required to consider restorative practices as alternatives to suspensions and expulsions since laws were updated in 2017. Under those laws, districts must also consider a student's age, disability status, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation, before suspending or expelling a student.

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 1,238 expulsions statewide. Then in the 2017-18, the number of expulsions decreased to 1,091 according to state data. Expulsions statewide continued to decrease the following school year to 1,087 and then 867 in the 2019-2020 school year. The 2020-21 school year only saw 188 expulsions when many students were already attending school online.

But Stone-Palmquist said she hopes to see districts more closely follow the 2017 law going forward.

A package of bills awaiting a hearing in the state Legislature would take steps to prevent expulsions. The bills have support from Student Advocacy Center.

The bills would grant students the option for a disciplinary hearing within 10 days, provide parents with specific disciplinary complaints within five days of the hearing, allow access to missed schoolwork and give students an avenue to appeal disciplinary actions before an independent hearing officer. The legislation would also require that schools consider a “trauma-responsive” behavior plan before removal.

Sutton on the other hand, doesn’t think that legislation is the solution now. Some students, he said, must be removed for the safety of the community.

He said the solution could be legally mandating finding education options for all students who have been expelled or suspended long-term. School districts are required by law to provide alternative education services to removed students with disabilities but it is not legally required for general education students.

“A mental health pandemic,”

Lauren Mangus is president of the Michigan Association of School Psychologists. She also observed an increase in suspensions and expulsions. Students, she said, have experienced a lot of grief, loss, trauma and isolation throughout the pandemic.

“Not only are we in the midst of a public health emergency with the pandemic, with respect to COVID-19,” Mangus said. “But we also have a mental health pandemic on our hands as well.”

School psychologists are part of the crisis response team that deals with suspensions and expulsions. Mangus also notes staffing shortages and compassion fatigue among both teachers and school mental health professionals like herself.

“The increase in needs of mental health supports (have) been really challenging because the infrastructure just hasn't really been there to give kids the support that they need (to) return to school,” she said.

She also adds that there is “anticipatory anxiety” among students meaning they are anxious for what might come next as the COVID-19 pandemic and health guidelines change. Mangus said social emotional learning must be a priority in the classroom- as many students missed out on that type of learning during online schooling.

“Making sure that there are the supports in a tiered intervention manner is going to be really vital,” she said. “So in that kind of public health model, we're not just intervening on a case by case basis, but really as a whole. Looking at all of our behavioral data and what's going on as a whole is really critical.”

Sophia Kalakailo joined Michigan Radio in Sept. 2021 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying journalism and minoring in documentary production. She previously interned at Bridge Michigan and was an editor for The State News and The Eastern Echo covering a wide range of topics.
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