New discipline policy means more flexibility for schools

New discipline policy means more flexibility for schools

(Mich.) When students in Michigan return to school in the fall it will be to more forgiving disciplinary polices that lawmakers say they hope will reduce suspension and expulsion rates for minor infractions. 

Beginning in August, school administrators will be allowed more flexibility when deciding on whether an incident regarding student misbehavior warrants suspension, expulsion or some other form of discipline based on the individual circumstances–rather than having to paint every infraction with the broad brush of zero tolerance.

The change is the result of a package of bills signed by the governor during the last legislative session.

“Moving forward, schools will no longer be required to suspend or expel students for accidents and inadvertent acts, and will have more discretion regarding disciplinary actions,” one of the bills’ authors, Reps. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, said in a statement. “Understanding intent is important in these situations, and we have heard too many terrible stories of students removed from school for an accidental violation, then slowly falling into the school to prison pipeline.”

Districts across the country are moving away from zero tolerance policies that grew popular in the 1990s as a means of ensuring student safety and fair disciplinary practices. Research has repeatedly shown in recent years, however, that these policies do not reduce problems, and instead result in higher numbers of dropouts, and more children ending up in the criminal justice system–especially children of color or students with disabilities.

In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued a letter to state education officials warning that districts with a disproportionate numbers of kids of color or with disabilities being suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement risk a federal civil rights action.

As a result, schools in states including California, Illinois, New York, Texas and Missouri have limited or eliminated zero tolerance policies for all but the most serious offenses, and instead adopted restorative justice practices or non-exclusionary methods of discipline—including in-school suspension, detention or loss of privileges.

The WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center reported last year that in many schools with zero tolerance, students were suspended or expelled at alarming rates for minor infractions such as texting in class, violating the dress code or tardiness.

Those are the types of scenarios Michigan lawmakers hope to avoid now that the package of seven House bills signed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year are set to go into effect in the coming school year.

One of the several Democrat and Republican representatives who introduced the legislation, Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, said when the bills were signed that students who had no malicious intent were being punished too harshly, and that the bills would give administrators the chance to rely on common sense in decisions regarding suspension and expulsion.

Under the new policy, schools will be required to look at every incident or infraction on a case-by-case basis and take into consideration the student’s age, disciplinary history, whether or not they have a disability, the seriousness of the violation or behavior committed, whether the safety of another student or a teacher was threatened, whether restorative justice techniques could be used to address the violation or behavior, or whether a lesser intervention would properly address the issue.

If a student is suspended for more than 10 days, the school would have to provide documentation showing that administrators considered all of those factors, and that suspension or expulsion was used as a last resort.

Lawmakers who crafted the bills said that in taking into consideration those factors listed, school officials would be better able to craft disciplinary actions that actually fit the infraction, instead of simply kicking students out of school.

“It is important when working with legislation that deals with the safety of our students, that we step back and analyze periodically whether or not a bill is doing what it is supposed to be doing,” Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, another author of the bill package, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the original version of this legislation was harming more students than it was helping, so it was time for us to adjust it and put it back on the course of its original intent.”