In Michigan, our current approach to school discipline is driving far too many public-school students—especially students of color—out of the classroom. In many cases, these children wind up booted out of state public-school districts altogether. Far too often, they also wind up in handcuffs.
And in most cases, the discipline policies do little to actually make schools safer.
A new report released today from Michigan State University professor Christopher Dunbar warns that the problems will only worsen—and the flow of children into the school-to-prison pipeline will only increase—unless leaders change their misguided notions about school discipline and overhaul related state laws.
In For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Students’ Future, Dr. Dunbar takes an uncommonly deep dive into public school suspension and arrest data, finding that about 137,000 students were suspended from Michigan schools in one school year. The report also found that black students in the state are more than four times as likely as white students to be suspended from school.
Equally as troubling, his research reveals that the disturbing rise in suspension and expulsion rates has far more to do with inappropriately harsh responses to child behavior—such as the enactment of draconian “zero tolerance” laws— than with effective preservation of school safety.
As a way of reversing this trend, Dunbar’s report offers some key recommendations for better addressing student misconduct and reducing the number of exclusions and arrests:
- Limit the offenses requiring mandatory expulsion
- Re-evaluate the role of law enforcement in schools so that student discipline is corrected, not simply policed
- Implement proven alternatives to suspension, expulsion and arrest, such as restorative practices and positive behavior intervention
Since the passage of the federal Gun Free Schools Act in 1994, states have been required to maintain mandatory expulsion policies for weapons possession. Like many states, Michigan has added other categories to the list. Unfortunately, we have gone so far that today only the state of Texas has more offenses included in its zero tolerance laws than Michigan does.
In many schools, zero tolerance is not just a policy for discipline. It’s a philosophy, one that does more to negatively impact performance than to improve safety.
For instance, Dunbar found that most suspensions given in Detroit schools are for truancy, meaning thousands of children who skip school are punished by being told to stay away from school even longer. Collectively, truancy combined with infractions like disorderly conduct and insubordination account for about 60 percent of the student suspensions from the city schools. Conversely, less than one quarter of one percent of the incidents reported in Detroit schools is related to weapons possession — the very issue that zero tolerance discipline was created to address.
Granted, one student caught with a gun in school is one too many. But the data tells us weapons in schools are less of a problem than a lack of resources needed to deal with student behavior.
The same thing is true when it comes to leading students out of school in handcuffs. The report lists “violation of a school ordinance” and disorderly conduct, infractions that are often vaguely defined, as the two most frequently cited offenses among the 1,425 arrests recorded over three years. The vast majority of arrests do not involve weapons, serious violence or drugs.
Dunbar reiterates that, not only are we kicking out and arresting students at excessive rates, we are targeting minority children disproportionately. While white students outnumber black students in Michigan nearly four to one statewide, there literally are more black students suspended (60,515) than white students (57,753) across the state.
The good news is that the Detroit Public Schools, the Educational Achievement Authority and many other school districts across the state have already started implementing some of the suggested reforms. Also, there is a movement across the state—pushed by ACLU of Michigan and the Michigan School-Justice Partnership—to change discipline laws.
Those efforts resulted in recent bills to amend state truancy law and require greater collection and reporting of suspension data. With a new legislative session now underway, it is time not only to renew our call for change but to actually amend our state zero tolerance law so that schools have the discretion to use something other than a 180-day punishment when appropriate.
What we can’t do is continue trying to suspend and arrest our way to better school climates.
By Rodd Monts, Field Director