On this cool, windy spring morning I joined other advocates to show support for the youth who walked the 80 miles from Detroit to the Capitol steps in Lansing to express their concerns with Michigan’s zero tolerance policies and the impact on their lives.
For the uninitiated, “zero tolerance” in this context refers to those education policies that mandate automatic suspension or expulsion for offenses deemed a threat to the safety of other students or school staff. The big problem in Michigan is that the list of such offenses now includes relatively minor infractions such as not having a school ID badge or wearing clothing that doesn’t adhere to the uniform code, according to the students who spoke this morning.
“I hope that legislators understand that youth around Michigan want to modify zero tolerance, and we’re willing to walk 80 miles to show it,” said Michael Reynolds, co-president of Youth First and an organizer of the march.
In 1995, Michigan enacted a series of laws in response to the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 that required expulsion for at least one year any student who brought a weapon onto school property. Unfortunately Michigan legislators enacted some of the most stringent policies in the country by expanding the list of “expulsion” offenses to include assault whether or not a weapon was involved, verbal “assaults,” vandalism, disobedience and an expansive definition of “weapon” that included toys and plastic knives.
Students today reported being pushed out the school door to find the police waiting outside ready to charge them with truancy, issue tickets and pull them into the court system. Court officials have raised concerns about this practice: Last fall the Michigan Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships enlisted county-based cross-disciplinary teams to focus on “keeping kids in school and out of the justice system.” This effort was spearheaded by Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice and the Department of Human Services. A School Justice Leadership Committee coordinated by the DHS is planning five regional meetings next month to share county plans focused on addressing truancy.
It’s been almost two decades since zero tolerance laws went into effect, and the injustices they have perpetrated have been well-documented in Michigan as well as across the nation. African American and Hispanic youth are two or three times more likely to suffer such penalties. In Michigan almost 2,000 youth get expelled each year, and an undocumented number get suspended for various periods of time. (Michigan has no clear definitions of expulsion or suspension.)
In light of these reports, in June of 2012 the State Board of Education issued a resolution encouraging school districts to “adopt discipline policies without mandated suspension or expulsion for issues that do not involve weapons.” The board recommended schools “implement or expand the use of proven alternative behavior management strategies like restorative practices, positive behavior supports, and peer mediation, which allow educators to address disciplinary matters correctively, rather than punitively, reducing suspensions.”
The youth assembled today gave voice to the terrible impact zero tolerance policies inflict on them and their families. Is anyone listening?
– Jane Zehnder-Merrell