Annapolis High School senior Atiya Haynes learned a tough lesson about Michigan’s zero tolerance this week—and although it wasn’t as harsh as it could’ve been, it’s also a lesson she shouldn’t have been forced to learn at all.

Atiya, a 17-year-old honor student and community volunteer, was suspended for the rest of her senior year by the Dearborn Heights school board this week after a school administrator found a knife in her purse that Atiya had forgotten was there.

Atiya is one in a long line of victims of Michigan’s tough discipline policies. Her time at Annapolis is over, and it didn’t have to be. Granted, this could have been worse, were it not for a flood of public support for Atiya that poured in once news of her story hit the media. The school board did not expel her, which would have kept her out of all public schools for the next year.

But the board also clearly missed an opportunity to exercise the discretion the law provides in cases where good, responsible, non-threatening students make the type mistake that adolescents tend to make.

The case reaches back several months to the summer, when Haynes’ grandfather gave her the knife for protection as she biked through her tough southwest Detroit neighborhood to a volunteer job in nearby Dearborn. Atiya, who only agreed to take the knife to appease her grandfather, dropped it in her purse and quickly forgot about it.

More than a month later, while at her school’s homecoming football game, Atiya was leaving a restroom when she was approached by an Annapolis High administrator. The teen has never been a disciplinary problem and believed she had nothing to hide so agreed to a search of her her purse.

Her life has not been the same since.

After the knife was discovered at the bottom of her bag, long covered up by numerous other personal items, Atiya was forced to miss classes for weeks while school officials debated whether to expel her. An expulsion would have meant banishment from all Michigan public schools as permitted under the state’s zero tolerance statute. Of course, that same law also permits a school board to forego permanent expulsion if a weapon “was not knowingly possessed by the pupil.”

As a result, the board had the option of allowing Atiya to finish her senior year with her classmates.

Atiya, who was represented by the ACLU of Michigan during her school disciplinary hearing, was hopeful that the board would exercise good judgment and let her stay in school.

Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed on Monday when the board voted to extend her suspension to 180 days, agreeing only to allow her to take online classes. Her senior year with friends at Annapolis High is over. Her plans to enroll in college in the fall have been thrown into chaos.

And in joining the tens of thousands of U.S. students forced from public schools each year as a result of zero tolerance laws, the aspiring journalist with a 3.0 grade point average has become a cautionary tale illustrating the dire need to reconsider these draconian policies.

While Michigan does not collect statewide statistics on suspensions, the U.S. Department of Education reported that more than 137,000 students in the state were suspended out of school during the 2009-10 school year. About 1,800 students are expelled for Michigan schools annually.

Born out of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, the zero tolerance approach to discipline mandates that every school district receiving federal education dollars adopt a policy of required expulsion for students who bring guns to school. Hoping to give states some latitude under the law, legislators permitted states to broaden the list to other “dangerous weapons,” while also giving them the right to make exceptions.

Michigan legislators included four exceptions in the state’s zero tolerance law under which districts could exercise their own discretion and forego expulsions in favor of punishments that are corrective and in the best interest of the student. One such exemption grants school boards discretion in instances in which “the weapon was not knowingly possessed by the pupil”—in other words, in cases like Atiya’s.

Problem is, too few school systems actually exercise discretion when they should. The tendency is to choose punishments that are too tough rather than appear too soft.

But Atiya is exactly the sort of pupil that the exemptions were created to protect: an honor student with no history of discipline problems or of using weapons, she deserves better than what she received—even if the punishment wasn’t as drastic as it could’ve been.

Moreover, our schools deserve even-handed policies that better address individual disciplinary concerns rather than laws that shoehorn each child into one-size mandates that clearly don’t fit all.

That’s why the ACLU of Michigan is working to reform our state’s zero-tolerance laws, as well as ensure that every district knows about the exceptions to the law. It's what students like Atiya deserve.

Key News and Documents

Know Your Rights When Facing School Discipline

By Rodd Monts, Field Director