Senate passes bill taking aim at school zero tolerance policies

LANSING, MICH. - The Michigan Senate passed legislation Tuesday, Dec. 13 that could virtually end zero-tolerance policies in schools — policies that have resulted in kids getting kicked out for offenses such as accidentally bringing a butter knife to school.

The package of bills originated in the House and was passed by that body in June. The bills will now go back to the House because the Senate made a couple of changes to the legislation.

The gist of the main bill in the bipartisan, seven-bill package, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing: School officials would have to consider a number of factors, such as a student's age, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation, before suspending or expelling a student. That bill passed on a 37-0 vote.

The bills also push schools to consider using restorative practices that bring the victim together with the rule violator — along with adults and peers — to try to resolve conflicts. The victims, though, must be willing to participate.

During the 2014-15 school year, there were 1,347 expulsions in Michigan schools— about 8% of them permanent. In 45% of cases, the expulsion was for almost a full school year — 180 days. The median number of days expelled: 157.

Kids who get expelled or suspended often end up struggling academically, are more likely to drop out, get in trouble, and/or eventually end up in prison, experts say.

The legislation is part of multiple efforts aimed at keeping kids in school. Lawmakers, educators and students say kids who pose a serious danger in school absolutely should be removed — but they want schools to have more flexibility in dealing with other violations of school policies. Michigan's expulsion rules — like those in many other states — go above federal guidelines that mandate students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year. In Michigan, you can be expelled for a host of reasons — from physical assault to disobedience.

The legislation doesn't change the tough stance on kids who bring firearms to schools. Such students would still face automatic expulsion.

The bills would go into effect August 1, 2017.

Schor's bill was amended from the original version to include language that says if a student is suspended or expelled for more than 10 days, and a parent opts to fight that punishment, the school district would have to prove that all factors were considered in making the decision.

The amendment was offered by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony on the bills. Jones said he heard from a mother who had purchased a backpack for her daughter at Goodwill, not realizing there was a jackknife in it.

"Her child goes to school, puts books in the backpack and discovers the knife. She goes to the principal to turn it in ... and gets expelled for turning it in."

"We want children to stay in school and not be expelled for things that totally lack any common sense," Jones said.

Schor said he's hopeful the House will take the bills up tomorrow.

"We're telling schools that you can look at the situation and decide if it was intentional or unintentional. Was it a butter knife to spread butter on your bagel? Was it a knife that you used when you went hunting over the weekend and was sitting in your backpack? Or was there an intent for a child to go after another child or a teacher? This is just basic common sense."

The passage of the legislation was lauded by Karen Holcomb-Merrill, vice president of the Michigan League for Public Policy. In a statement, she said the bills provide "flexibility and consideration of the students in weighing suspensions and expulsions."

"Too many students were receiving drastic and even permanently detrimental punishments for minor incidences or oversights, and this change provides educators with the discretion they need to act in the best interest of all students."

Kathleen Gray contributed to this report

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins

© 2016 Detroit Free Press


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