I was a public-school Bart Simpson. I have zero tolerance for ‘zero tolerance.’

Alex Rossman

Alex Rossman is communications director for the Michigan League for Public Policy in Lansing.

A few blocks from my Lansing office is the building formerly known as Walnut Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten through third grade. Depending on where I’m going or coming from, I occasionally chance past it and a memory or two always comes to mind.

The playground area is especially noteworthy. I lost my first real fight there, cutting open my eyebrow on a corner of the brick building and requiring stitches. And I won my first fight there, in a “Christmas Story”-esque vanquishing of a longstanding bully that has infamously and affectionately become known as “The Time You Hit Larry With the Boot” to my siblings (I turned the 80s-tastic moon boot that came off my foot in the melee as a weapon of opportunity).

It was a simpler time then and I don’t remember getting suspended for either of these incidents. To my recollection, writing “sentences” was the most frequent punishment meted out. And I assure you that in my early years, I wrote almost as many sentences as Bart Simpson. 

I was suspended once, later in elementary school, again for fighting (though mostly for really pushing a substitute teacher’s buttons). In middle school and high school, I did occasionally find myself in detention or kicked out of class. And I wore several T-shirts and did several things in high school that probably wouldn’t fly today in terms of good taste or a safe environment.

Kids today haven’t had it so easy. They don’t get the same chances to be kids, do dumb things and learn from them. The dramatic increase in school shootings and heightened fear of terror attacks led to Michigan lawmakers passing “zero tolerance” laws. But as is often the case, legislators overcorrected.

Beginning with state legislation that took effect in 1995, these zero tolerance school policies were hamstringing school officials and forcing them to treat every incident the same, regardless of the context or intent. There have been countless instances of a kid making an honest mistake, but getting suspended or expelled nonetheless because zero tolerance left no discretion. In the 2014-15 school year, 1,347 students were expelled, with a median of 157 days expelled. These policies also were having an adverse effect on students of color in particular, with significant racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions that also contribute to lower graduation rates and higher rates of incarceration.

Luckily, parents, teachers, organizations and elected officials began to take notice of the flaws of zero tolerance school policies. We at the Michigan League for Public Policy have been speaking out against them since 2003, when they were addressed in our Kids Count Data Book. And we, along with the ACLU and other concerned organizations, have been working for more than a decade to fix these policies—work that pays off this month as the elimination of Michigan’s zero tolerance school discipline problems takes effect.

The League was proud to support the passage of these bills, as they will better serve students, parents and schools. My state representative Andy Schor led a bipartisan effort on these bills and they were heralded by Gov. Rick Snyder. We all want safe schools, and truly malicious or dangerous behavior will still be punished accordingly. But the huge majority of kids that, like me, had a lapse in judgment or are just a little unruly, will now be able to be treated more reasonably and fairly. And that’s good news for us all.

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/11/2017 - 2:24pm

There is something to be said for the insanity that has crept into the mindset of politicians (and judges) who are hell-bent on micro-managing the daily lives of the people they purportedly serve.

And it isn't good!

I remember reading and being told about schools having shooting clubs and even firearms safety actually being taught in class here in Michigan a long time ago. Even though the link below specifically refers to Indiana, go to the bottom of the page for an interesting "revelation" about their absence.


Today, we have people totally loosing it when a 7-year old goes on a "violent rampage" with a Pop Tart.


I was a little surprised when Mr. Rossman mentioned that even a well-known hoplophobe like Gov. Snyder himself signed off on a bill to dial back the insanity. Maybe their is some hope for him yet.

Local districts are the best arbiter of what is and what is not "dangerous" student behavior based on their knowledge of the principles involved.

All in all, interesting read, Mr. Rossman.

John Q. Public
Fri, 08/11/2017 - 8:11pm

Enjoy it while it lasts. In about eighteen months, when the Dem voters sit on their...uh, hands...again in November 2018, Bill Schuette is entrenched in the governor's chair, Tom Leonard occupies Bill's old seat, and a few more DeVos acolytes are instilled in the legislature, after this one step forward you'll be looking at three steps back.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 3:42am

Not sure on this one.
While what Mr. Rossman says is technically correct---
there needs to be some leeway---I think in schools
"zero tolerance" sends a powerful message that violence in any form
will not be tolerated. Yes times are very different and with a bully in
the White House I think the message that zero tolerance sends is even more
important to solidify values and make it known in no uncertain terms that
bullying and violence are not acceptable under any circumstances by anyone. The United States included.
Change the specifics of the law so that exceptions can be made but keep the strong
prohibition against any kind of bullying or violence. We don't want to make kids think that using force to intimidate or get what we want is a good thing. Because it's not. Under any circumstances.

Pierre DeBoe
Sun, 01/14/2018 - 5:13pm

The White House "bully" appears not be concerned with consequences as demonstrated by the long series of poor choices exercised. Only the day after the 2020 election will he understand the consequences as he leaves Washington DC as former chief executive.

Sun, 08/13/2017 - 8:36am

Been there done that. My elementary and secondary times were similar without the violence. Lots of bullying and verbal exchanges. Then I made the leap to education for 35 years plus. I saw first hand the bullying and fights, and I was often the one called to diffuse the situation. I never had in those years a student hit me or verbally threaten me. Now with the internet it ushered in a whole new method of nasty. More in school suspension TRUMPS out of school suspension. My prayers are with those who choose education as a career. Peace R.L.

Jeb McIntyre
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 9:47am

"Zero Tolerance" is an absurd concept, supposing that there are conscious decisions behind every action, supposing that those making decisions have the capacity to make those decisions, and supposing that children have the impulse control necessary to avoid these issues. In management, quality is 80% managements responsibility, 20% worker. Let's look to school administration to solve these issues, not the children who violate the policy.

Pierre DeBoe
Sun, 01/14/2018 - 5:22pm

Schools can work with what is given to them. Many students are from homes that are not conducive to learning. Expecting schools to raise and educate students in the current climate is a stretch at best. When parents support teachers and schools as necessary only then will students reach a potential that is aligned with their ability.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 9:53am

By all means, let local officials decide, but please don't allow one person to interfere with the learning of other students. Alternative schools also do not have a great record either, becoming a pipeline to prison. This is not a simple issue.

J Hendricks
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 12:36pm

Shakespeare was right. "First, kill all the lawyers." Especially those that write laws. I would love to see a local school district ignore this bs and take whatever action they deem appropriate to the situation. Imagine! A school district that actually has power rather than being a mindless vassal of the state.

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 2:16pm

Zero Tolerance sounds like a religious mindset that we in America try to fight against. Thinking along the lines of "all thieves should have a hand cut off" doesn't afford much leeway for the man stealing day old bread to feed his starving child. How can we have Zero Tolerance in schools, and have the same punishment across the board, yet teach the opposite in our judicial system, where defendants get to plead their case and are heard out. Zero Tolerance is just the easy way out.