‘It’s just easier to kick a kid out’: Progress is elusive three years after school discipline reforms in Michigan

On a Sunday afternoon last summer, four children slipped into their Detroit charter school through an unlocked window, took popsicles from a refrigerator, and fled.

What happened next wasn’t supposed to happen anymore in Michigan.

The students — two girls ages 9 and 10, and two 13-year-old boys — were suspended for the rest of the school year, about three weeks. The school board added that the students couldn’t return unless their parents made an appearance at the school to explain their behavior.

Three years ago, outrage over such punitive responses to student misbehavior fueled a major overhaul of Michigan’s school discipline laws, which were among the nation’s strictest at the time. In order to suspend or expel students under the new law, school boards must consider seven factors, including the student’s age, disciplinary history, disability, and whether a lesser consequence would be effective.

That didn’t happen at Joy Prep, said Arlyssa Heard, a policy analyst and parent organizer with 482Forward who attended the meeting when the students were suspended. She noted that they changed schools after the incident, further disrupting their education.

“Had they followed the seven factors, they would never have suspended the kids,” Heard said. “It’s just easier to kick a kid out, especially if it’s what they consider a bad apple. But it’s far more productive to get to the bottom of what’s going on with the student.”

The principal and school board members at Joy Prep did not return requests for comment.

Detailed minutes from the hearing don’t mention the seven factors.

Advocates say stories like this one explain why the discipline reforms have been less effective than they hoped at protecting students — particularly students of color — from the harmful effects of being pushed out of school. They hope a recent lawsuit or even an opinion from the Attorney General’s office could shift the ability of school districts to interpret the law.

“We’re hearing some of the same stories that we were hearing before about being suspended for not having your shirt tucked in, or being suspended because you don’t have a parking pass and you park in the school lot,” said Angela Cole, Director of the Michigan School-Justice Partnership Initiative, a group that supported the discipline reforms. “There’s room to improve still.”

Expelling and suspending students has been shown to hurt them academically, and critics of those policies have long contended that pushing students out of school effectively pushes them into the criminal justice system. And studies in Michigan and nationwide have consistently shown that students of color, particularly African-American students, bear the brunt of tough discipline policies.

Michigan’s discipline reforms came as states nationwide reconsidered tough “zero tolerance” policies, which became widespread after the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado in 1999.

Kristin Totten, an education attorney with the Michigan ACLU, said the reforms were a big improvement. But she says that school’s are given too much leeway to “demonstrate that they considered” the seven factors as the law requires.

“It really hinges on, what does ‘consider’ mean,” said. “What we have heard is that it is a formality. They’re checking the boxes and not getting to the substance.”

Totten is keeping an eye on a lawsuit that challenges one school’s interpretation of the law. And she says an opinion from Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Attorney General, would help clarify the meaning of the law. Nessel would need an official request from the Michigan Department of Education to issue guidance on the law, but the department has so far declined to ask for one.

In the meantime, advocates say that the eyebrow-raising stories of discipline are still coming, three years after the reforms.

Kristin Totten, an education attorney with the ACLU, recounted a story of a 9-year-old African-American student in Flint with behavior issues linked to a disability who was pushed out of several schools in Flint.

Then there’s Alexis Harris, who was expelled from Detroit Collegiate Academy, a city charter school, because she shoved a chair that allegedly hit another student. Her advocate, Jenna Pickman, said the board didn’t adequately consider the seven factors. Kerri Smith, president of EQ Education, the company contracted to operate DCA, said that the board considered the seven factors in Harris’ case.

To be sure, there are signs that the law has spurred positive change. Expulsions are down 12% statewide in four years, and there is anecdotal evidence that some school districts are undertaking major school discipline overhauls.

Rob Dietzel, a lawyer with the Thrun Law Firm who helps represent about half of the school districts in Michigan, said that most districts take the new law, and discipline in general, very seriously.

“Without exception, every board meeting I’ve attended where student discipline was an issue, school boards will take the time necessary to weigh those issues,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen districts just do the minimum possible.”

Advocates aren’t so sure. Peri Stone-Palmquist, who runs the Student Advocacy Center, an Ypsilanti-based nonprofit that represents students in discipline disputes, told the state school board last year that the reduction in expulsions may have been offset by an increase in suspensions. The state doesn’t require schools to report suspension data. Stone-Palmquist raised concerns, too, that districts are pushing out poorly behaved students by telling parents that a different school would better serve their child’s needs.

Are her concerns justified? The state doesn’t know.

“Unfortunately, statewide [the Michigan Department of Education] does not have a clear picture of the effects of the law,” said Bill Disessa, a spokesman for the department.

Yet this is an urgent matter for the thousands of Michigan students who are expelled or suspended each year for violating school rules.

The top official in the department, State Superintendent Michael Rice, was a prominent supporter of the discipline reforms in his last job as head of the Kalamazoo School district. A department spokesman declined a request for comment. MDE has issued a template of school rules based on the law, but districts aren’t required to use it.

Now advocates have turned their attention to another option: the courts. Latanya Davis and her daughters, ages 16 and 17, filed a lawsuit in December against their Detroit charter school, Cornerstone Health and Technology High School, alleging that it failed to meet the requirements of the 2017 discipline law when it expelled the two girls for fighting a campus security guard.

The complaint is the first to challenge a school’s interpretation of the law, and legal experts say it could have repercussions for districts across the state if the final ruling adds any additional interpretation of the law.

Discipline reformers don’t deny the existence of behavior issues in schools.  

“Most of the time our students did something,” said Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center. “We try to have them think about what they did, and how they can repair the harm. How can we really get to the root of what’s going on with the student and create supports so it doesn’t keep happening?”

She says Michigan’s new law is designed to make that process happen. But while some districts, such as the Detroit Public Schools Community District, are working to overhaul their approach to school behavior issues, Stone-Palmquist said the shift is not as widespread as it should be.

That may be because “restorative justice” doesn’t come cheap. It requires time and plenty of additional staff, such as school counselors. And those resources are in short supply for many Michigan schools after two decades of largely stagnant education funding. The state has one of the worst ratios of students to guidance counselors in the nation.

Totten, the ACLU lawyer, said that poorer school districts have a harder time shifting their approach to discipline.

“They’re in survival mode,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that some districts that have resources are able to put restorative practices in place, when all schools need it. These are children. They’re making mistakes in their lives. They need to be taught, not punished.”