‘Zero tolerance’ school reforms hit resistance in Michigan

Eighteen months after state education leaders urged reforms to “zero-tolerance” discipline policies, an analysis of two large Michigan school districts found that they still impose disproportionate numbers of suspensions and expulsions on minority students.

And while some districts have installed measures to address that issue, critics say too many students are still being lost to expulsion or suspension. A growing chorus of critics says zero-tolerance measures, while well meaning, often fail to curb student misconduct, while paving the way to higher rates of dropouts and incarceration down the road.

“Michigan mandates expulsions that pretty much go beyond any other state in the country,” said Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, a nonprofit student rights organization.

She cites a body of research showing “that the students who have been expelled, the students that get in trouble, are often the ones that need the most help.”

A 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan found that districts across the state meted out a greater share of discipline to minority students, thereby increasing the odds that suspended or expelled students would drop out of school or wind up in prison or jail.

It mirrored national findings for 2009-2010 by the U.S. Department of Education that black students were 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

Follow-up analysis this year by the ACLU of two urban districts – Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids – revealed similar results.

In Ann Arbor Public Schools in 2012-2013, black students comprised 14 percent of the student body but 50 percent of out-of-school suspensions, the ACLU found through data collected under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, black students comprised 36 percent of the student body but more than 60 percent of the 3,511 suspensions in the first semester of 2012-2013, the study found. White students – 22 percent of the student body – accounted for 11 percent of suspensions.

Acknowledging the issue, the State Board of Education in June 2012 issued a recommendation that districts reconsider their approach to discipline.

“Researchers have found no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or improve student behavior,” the board stated. “In fact, studies suggest that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.”

A 2005 Texas study concluded that the single greatest predictor of youth incarceration was a history of school discipline. Another Texas study found that one-third of all youth in a juvenile facility had dropped out of school, and that 80 percent of adult inmates were high school dropouts. A 2011 national academic study also found that black and Hispanic students received harsher penalties for the same offenses as white students.

The Board of Education statement added that suspension or expulsion “should be reserved for the most serious infractions, and not used as a means of discipline for minor occurrences.”

It also noted the black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities “are suspended or expelled in rates disproportionate to their population.”

How Michigan got tough

The federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 mandates that students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year.

Michigan went further. Beginning with legislation that took effect in 1995, Michigan requires permanent expulsion for students who bring a dangerous weapon to school, commit arson or criminal sexual conduct. Student must be expelled for at least 180 days for physically assaulting a school employee or volunteer.

To be sure, grim newspaper headlines in the years since are continual reminders that school safety is a legitimate concern. In 1999, two students at Colorado's Columbine High School killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. In 2012, a lone shooter killed 20 elementary school students and six adults in Connecticut before killing himself.

But reform advocates say that well-intentioned zero tolerance policies make schools no safer, and ultimately harm too many students through inflexible discipline measures.

Some Michigan examples:

· An eighth grader named Mike was kept out of school for 180 days in 2012 for possession of an Airsoft gun, a replica gun that fires plastic pellets. According to the center, he was left with no viable alternatives for education.

· A 12-year-old boy named Wyatt was expelled for 180 days in 2012 when a school bus driver saw him playing in the dirt with a knife he had found in an alley near his home.

· A Detroit high school sophomore was suspended in 2007 for bringing a small device to school to shape eyebrows that contained a razor-like blade.

· In March 2013, a Farmington Hills high school freshman (see accompanying article) was expelled for 180 days after he and a teacher wrestled over a paper another student had taken from his school folder. He was removed from school in handcuffs and faced assault charges that were vacated in exchange for a no-contest plea in December. He now attends a different school. The district superintendent expressed frustration with the zero-tolerance law in that case.

“As sad as that case is, it's hardly the worst I've seen,” said David Fancher of the ACLU of Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Education keeps no statewide records on suspensions. It recorded 1,823 expulsions in 2010-2011, 1,893 in 2011-2012 and 1,796 in 2012-2013.

Kyle Guerrant, director of the state Office of School Support for the Michigan Department of Education, said districts are increasingly aware it is an issue they have to address.

“The way it is now we are losing millions of hours of instruction to…suspensions and expulsions. Obviously that has a far-reaching impact,” he said.

One advocate of reforming the state’s zero tolerance law said the issue is not whether schools face serious student behavior issues - but rather how they deal with this behavior.

“It is sometimes portrayed as an issue of uncaring and biased schools and administrators,” said Bill Sower, founder and director of The Christopher and Virginia Sower Center for Successful Schools, a nonprofit education reform organization based in Plymouth.

“The fact is, schools are facing a serious problem with misconduct.”

He cited a national survey by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonpartisan research organization, that found four in 10 teachers report spending more time trying to restore order in class than they do teaching.

“Then we are left with the dilemma, if we are not going to be punitive, what are we going to do?”

A promising alternative

Sower advocates an approach to discipline known as “restorative justice,” modeled after measures that originated in the 1980s in New Zealand.

“This is not kumbaya. This is a higher-level authority,” Sower said.

Under this approach, a trained mediator convenes a group that includes the offending student, the teacher, those harmed in the incident and the parents or siblings of the student. The idea is to encourage students to accept responsibility for their actions and learn from the experience.

“Kids have to come face-to-face with the people they harmed. This is aligned with conventional discipline,” he said.

Sower said it has proven to reduce suspensions and expulsions, but is only being used in a handful of Michigan districts.

Dave Rice, principal of Roseville Middle School in Macomb County, was skeptical when the school considered adopting a restorative justice program during the 2011-2012 school year.

“I resisted it. I will flat out tell you that,” Rice said.

It was put in place in the fall of 2012, with a full-time facilitator and aide. Critical to its success, Rice said, teachers have bought into the approach.

“We have seen results all over the place,” Rice said.

In 2011-12, Rice said, the school expelled 14 students. It expelled 11 the following year and thus far this year, just one.

“Community involvement is way up here. Parents are calling, saying, ‘I hear you have peace circles. Can I get my kid involved in a peace circle?’

“The kids are not turning into angels. But what they are doing is at least thinking more.”

Jeanice Kerr Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, acknowledged that disproportionate minority discipline remains a challenge in her district. But Swift cited progress, spurred by the hiring this school year of four specialists who work with students with behavior concerns.

The district cut suspensions from 557 in 2011-2012 to 361 in 2012-2013, including substantial reductions among black and special needs students.

“We have a lot of work to do. We are the first to say that. But this strategy is working very well,” she said.

State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said it is time to scale back provisions of Michigan's zero-tolerance law. She intends to introduce legislation in 2014 to give more discretion to local school districts in how they discipline students.

“I think we are seeing that (zero tolerance) is an overreaction. It allows for absolutely no flexibility. We need answers for those kids.”

While Warren said she hasn’t yet gauged the level of support for reform of zero tolerance, she said “some of our Republican colleagues are interested in the issue as well.”

But Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he sees no pressing need to change the law.

“When I reviewed this, it was clear the school board does have a lot of discretion in these issues,” he said. “There is always a balance you want to make.”

Pavlov said he recently consulted with the superintendent of Port Huron Area Schools about the issue. “In his 14 years, he said he hasn't seen anything to cause him to reach out to the legislature for more control,” Pavlov said.

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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 7:44am
It is unfortunate that we refuse to see the drivng force behind much of the misbehavior presented by school children. The adult idiocy of expecting that inquisitve, imaginative and creative minds genetically endowed with the capacity to learn would be willing participants in an irrelevent context called school ("Sit still, be quiet and listen!" We forget that a mind engages voluntarily) created in the vision of what the adult world believes to be what children need to learn. That energy, when not captured by the offereings of school and societyl, has to go somewhere and that somewhere is most often unproductive behaviors requiring physical force to contain. Expulsion of students is an adult failure spawned by rigid and unimaginative mindsets. If learning opportunities in schools engage the mind and "competition" for status takes a back seat to learning misbehaviors diminish. Parents know this, our ancestors knew this - why can't we? Instead of creativity we have literally thousands of mind numbing rules and regulations killing learning opportunities in the classroom.We have created a system of education that punishes teachers, students and parents for any effort to take exception to the rules. PA 451, just one statute governing education, has 1,782 shall statements that the MDE has converted into rules. Imagine those that write for Bridge Magazine forced to insure thier writing complies with that many rules, especially when you have auditors checking everything you do. I can only conclude that adults are afraid of change, afraid of the future because its too dangerous. Either that or we are just to damn lazy to care enough to listen to the teacher and the student, take their lead and let our children learn.
Jan of MI
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 10:15am
Mr. Fellows has raised some great points. The marginalization of children because of high stakes testing has become inexcusable. Teachers are forced into mind numbing staff development about how to improve test scores rather that meaningful discussions about teaching and learning. Teachers need support with building and applying skills in programs like restorative justice, but instead sit in meeting after meeting about data analysis. We need to listen to the teachers and administrators as to what they need to deliver quality instruction to all students. They know. The trust in education has been eroded to the point that parents blame teachers for the lack of motivation in their children. I believe that this blame is misplaced because teachers through threats and coercion have been forced to teach to the test. The best of them have been able to keep humanity in their classrooms but they take great risks to do this. Movies that show creative teaching but with kids keeping a lookout at the door so that when an administrator shows up, the children are sitting in neat rows quiet as mice, are not that far off base. And while I am on this soap box. It is time that the State of Michigan shows that it values high quality education of all students. Schools cannot continue to offer quality programs without the money they need. Passing more laws about what schools are required to do is foolish especially when there is not additional funding to pay for the mandates. Schools need the money that will keep class sizes at a reasonable level, to purchase high quality curriculum materials and dollars to keep and attract highly qualified teachers and administrators. They need money to provide wrap-around services for troubled students. And above all the the State needs to address the issue of poverty in our state. The impact of poverty on education is well documented, but the "powers-that-be" ignore this data in favor of lining the pockets of corporations that have little interest in the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
Wed, 01/08/2014 - 8:33am
That link should be sent to every Michigan legislator and member of the State Board of Education, sadly I don't think they would really understand it however.
J. Strate
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 3:52pm
The discipline problems in junior and senior high schools would seem to be jointly due to their age and the unnatural environment that they experience in modern junior/senior high schools. Young people sitting quietly and attentively in a classroom listening to an instructor(s) for six hours a day was not something that happened in the hunter-gatherer societies of our ancestors, so it's not surprising that a lot of young people simply aren't up to doing it. A few just can sit still and focus, are diagnosed ADHD, and medicated. They need a different mode of instruction. Young males, like the young males of other group living primates, view the world through the lens of status and hierarchy. Young males have always been troublesome for societies to deal with. They are often in authority challenging mode, continually assessing their own status, challenging those who they perceive to be of higher rank, sometimes bullying those of lower rank. How to keep order in the classroom? Some teachers seem to be better able at quickly establishing their authority in the classroom than others, and perhaps they have ideas for other, less effective teachers. Tough, authoritative assistant principals may help here. Perhaps restorative justice works because offenders learn in no uncertain terms from the larger community (including their peers) that their behavior is unacceptable. Schools that offer sports and other extra-curricular activities have outlets for channeling status rivalries among young males outside the classroom.
Wed, 01/08/2014 - 8:50pm
Mr. Roelofs provides all nature of speculation about how school discipline and dropouts lead to criminal incarceration, disruptive incident shouldn’t lead to expulsion, and how the schools aren’t any safer with the law. However, there seems to be no mentions of personal responsibilities for those who precipitate the disruptions, no mention about the impact of the disruption on teachers and other students. It seems MR. Roelofs has a very narrow of the issue, almost like advocacy rather than reporting. By Mr. Roelofs ‘reporting” the ACLU’s only concern seems to be with the ‘rights’ of the disciplined students with no interest in the ‘rights’ of the non- disruptive students. The seems to be little if any interest in, How many times teachers and administrators have disciplined student for severe disruptive/intimidating activities, how many time the parents of those students have gone to the teacher/administrator trying to bully them into removing all disciplinary actions even threatened legal actions (such as with ACLU), how many times have teachers/administrator succumbed to the parents demands, and how many times do the other students have to suffer and have their classrooms disrupted and no longer feel safe? Mr. Roelofs doesn’t appear to show any interest in the value of classrooms security in the education process, for the security of the students and the teachers. Mr. Roelofs seems more intent on removing responsibilities and consequences from the students who are disciplined under the law for the disruptions. I can see how a mechanism could be added to the law to allow for a process to mitigate long-term impact on the cases Mr. Roelofs has made the foundation of his article. That doesn’t seem to be an idea Mr. Roelofs has considered. I wonder if Mr. Roelofs has ever tried to learn in a classroom where a student is consistently disruptive, if he has ever tried to teach a class when a student is consistently disruptive, if he has ever been responsible for a learning environment when there are students in that environment that are more interested in their wants and disruptive actions then they are about anyone else. Is this reporting or public lobby?
Karen of MI
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 12:30pm
I am in my last class for my BSW (social work) but also have worked in the public school arena for 18 years as a special education paraprofessional. What I have notice with Michigan's educational system is the responsibilities the society puts on the public schools and teachers. This system has to feed, nurture, teach life skills, counsel, keep control over 34 students a hour and teach to the test or lose their jobs. Since the NCLB, and testing to prove the teachers are doing his or her "Job," students are being spoon fed the information for test, for out of the fear of a bad rating. Students have figured out that teachers have more at stake to teach than the students have to learn. The spoon feeding leads to students not learning the skill of critical thinking and problem solving. Most students do not care if they have pencils, paper, the books that the school has loaned to them, or homework, that is needed to be able to do his or her job as a student. Students talk through teacher's lectures, refuse to take notes. Research has shown that suspensions do not change behavior. On the other hand, funding does not allow for what really needs to happen, behavior and anger counseling, life skills training, and the teaching of the difference between cultural behavior and work force behavior. The schools main responsibility is to prepare students for the real world. Suspensions also leads the student right into our prisons, this cost society more money than the preventive measures would cost. If the state would be proactive instead reactive, put more money into the schools for where societies problems are starting instead of our prisons where it is, we would have more people employable, and educated. Again on the other hand maybe that is where our legislature really wants it to be like, more drones to work for little or no pay so that the big corporations can make more of a profit.