Why I have zero tolerance for “zero tolerance”

A few blocks from our 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 (and not just because of the AMAZING Another Bad Creation song). 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).

principals_office2It 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 and 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 2014-2015 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 League have been speaking out against these policies 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 policieswork that will finally pay off next week when 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. It was encouraging that these bills received bipartisan support and were heralded by Governor 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.

— Alex Rossman

We need more, not less funding for at-risk students

Eric Staats

Eric Staats

Not all students in the state are the same and neither are their educational needs. When a student walks into school, they carry with them all of the problems they could be experiencing at home, like poverty, abuse, malnutrition, or minimal parental support. That can make it much more difficult for them to achieve their academic potential. It is important for lawmakers to be aware of these differences and keep them in mind when allocating funds to districts, as some districts have more students who need additional support. Without sufficient funding for schools, students who need extra help could be in danger of falling behind. That’s why the state needs to fully fund the At-Risk program and expand its eligibility.

Currently under the program, districts are allocated funds based on the number of their students that are eligible for free school meals. These funds can be used to support students who are considered “at risk.” While the primary goal of the program is to make sure these students meet third-grade reading benchmarks and graduate from high school, the dollars can also support other activities proven to benefit at-risk students, like decreasing class sizes to give teachers more individual time with students who need it, providing adult high school completion programs to increase overall graduation rates, hiring support staff to assist students and investing in new curriculum geared towards helping students with additional challenges.

Helping children succeed through michigans at risk program chart 3As of now, the program is underfunded. There are currently several different proposals to increase funding going through the Michigan Legislature, but even the most generous of those would still short the program by $78 million. When it comes to supporting students in need, we need more, not less.

The need for more funding is best illustrated in the differences in graduation rates between students who are economically disadvantaged and those that are not. The 2016 graduation rate for students from families with low incomes was 67% while the rate for all other students was 88%. Additionally, there are disparities by income levels in 2016 tests for third-grade reading proficiency: nearly 69% of students whose families have low incomes are not proficient, but for students not from families with low incomes, there are almost 38% not proficient. At-risk students experience additional difficulties and barriers in attaining the same level of academic success as their peers, and the state is not doing enough to rectify this apparent imbalance.

There are multiple factors that can contribute to this difference and explain the need for additional support. Parents who live below the poverty line are less likely to be able to be involved in their child’s academic career, because many work untraditional hours or more than one job, for example, which can present challenges to being more involved. The additional stress that comes from living in poverty or moving multiple times can deteriorate the physical and mental health of students in the long-term, and their ability to focus and learn at school in the short-term. Schools need to be able to assist all students to counteract these issues; the fact that the At-Risk program can provide funding to specifically target students who need the most support is what makes it so beneficial.

The proposed increases in state budget funding to the At-Risk program are important to help those who need it most. The financial status of a student’s parents should not have such a large effect on that student’s success in school, and increasing funding for the At-Risk program is an effective way to change that.

— Eric Staats