Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday, July 21 to include a statement from Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
Detroit school district leaders want to give school administrators more leeway to suspend or transfer students amid growing concerns about student misbehavior.
Under a stricter student code of conduct Detroit Public Schools Community District officials are proposing, deans and principals would have greater flexibility to impose out-of-school suspensions, and could suspend a student after just the first instance of fighting.
The proposed changes, which Superintendent Nikolai Vitti outlined for school board members at recent committee meetings, would mark a sharp reversal from less punitive policies the district adopted just five years ago, when Vitti and the school board raised concerns that the code of conduct was too ambiguous and that student discipline varied from school to school.
Vitti said the latest proposals were intended to give school administrators more authority to deal swiftly with behavioral problems in their buildings. The changes were supposed to go before the school board at its July 11 meeting, but were removed from the agenda. The district did not respond to questions about whether it planned to introduce the proposal later or make changes to it.
The proposed revisions come at a time when lawmakers across the country have moved to make it easier to kick disruptive students out of school, a pivot toward stricter discipline that reflects growing concerns about student behavior and school violence.
But some students and advocates view the potential changes as a step in the wrong direction, suggesting that the new policy language would embolden teachers and school administrators to suspend students in lieu of other interventions and strategies.
Already, some students say, administrators are short-circuiting district policies and state laws that were designed to reduce punishments and emphasize communication and engagement with students.
“We already overuse these punishments and penalties,” said Janiala Young, an incoming sophomore at Renaissance High School.
“It sometimes just feels like they don’t want to help us,” she added. “They want to control us.”
District responds to administrators’ complaints
In 2018, the DPSCD school board approved changes to the code of conduct aimed at bringing more consistency to discipline policies across the district, so that students at different schools would not face different consequences for the same infractions. At the time, Vitti advocated less punitive actions against students, suggesting that schools give students more room to make mistakes.
Those changes emphasized progressive discipline practices, which require school leaders to consider options such as conflict resolution, student conferences, and peer mediation before meting out punishment.
But since then, Vitti said, some school administrators have complained that they had to wait as long as six to eight weeks before they could suspend a student out of school, keeping students with behavioral issues in the building for a long time.
Vitti said the new proposals “will empower school leaders to make more decisions and have more discretion around using possible out of school suspension strategies.”
“Progressive discipline approach will still be embedded in the code of conduct,” he added, and school officials can still opt to use “in-school suspension or detention-like strategies during the school day.”
In cases of fights, or the use or possession of drugs and alcohol, though, students could be immediately referred to an out-of-school suspension.
State law requires Michigan schools to consider seven factors for most suspensions and expulsions, including a student’s age, disciplinary history, disability status, and the seriousness of the violation. The law also says school leaders should consider whether lesser interventions or restorative practices are better suited to address the student’s behavior.
Under restorative practices, students are encouraged to talk through harmful behavior and conflict through circles or conferences overseen by a trained adult facilitator. Some experts encourage the use of those progressive strategies to reduce suspensions.
Shantinette Lowe, a rising senior at Cody High School, said she wants school officials to be more deliberate about considering the seven factors before resorting to suspensions or transfers.
She recalled her experience in 2022, when she and a peer got into a physical fight at school. She alleges that despite district policy and state law that favored restorative practices, she was suspended without any attempted intervention from teachers or administrators.
“Before I got suspended, I didn’t know that there was a process … so when I found out my suspension could have been prevented, I was upset,” Shantinette told Chalkbeat in late May.
In an emailed response to Chalkbeat Friday, Vitti said both students were initially sent home to defuse the situation and prevent a conflict from escalating at school.
“Cody administration attempted to schedule a restorative meeting with both students and parents, but Shantinette’s mother refused to meet with the other parent,” he said. “Therefore, a restorative meeting took place between both students without their parents so they could return to school.”
School officials then staggered the students’ return to school, with Shantinette returning a few days before the other student.
Shantinette said she’s concerned that in the long term, overusing suspensions and transfers could push students to drop out of school and risk getting into trouble with the criminal justice system.
Students, advocates call for more restorative practices
Vitti said the district annually reviews its code of conduct with representatives from “various stakeholders,” including students, parents, community members, nonprofits, school administrators, and teachers.
Feedback from those groups led to language in the revised code that says “staff should consider student age and grade when assigning consequences” and “avoid assigning any form of suspension to K-2 students.”
Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, said it was encouraging that the district added that language but said she worries that “other places in the code actually send a message that automatic suspension is the recommendation.”
Under the proposed changes, for example, students who fail to follow instructions could be suspended out of school for up to two days on their fourth referral.
“For a student with a history of trauma or a disability, more support may need to be pushed in for that teacher and student to get to the root of the problem,” Stone-Palmquist said. The district should also consider a student’s housing status, and should provide “clear due process rights spelled out for virtual, alternative or administrative transfers,” she said
Detroit Heals Detroit co-founder Sirrita Darby said it is troubling that the district drew up this new language when it’s already moved to reduce the number of deans and school culture facilitators in recent budget cuts. The people in those roles are best positioned to understand student behavior and work directly with them to solve problems, she said.
Through her organization, Darby has focused on the impact of trauma on students both inside and outside the classroom, advocating for the use of restorative practices in place of suspensions.
“Writing referrals is not a benign act at all, but we do it like it is,” Darby said. “We need people to build relationships with students so they want to change behavior.”
Shantinette says she would like to see more collaboration between students and district officials to ensure that school leaders abide by state law when issuing punishment. Otherwise, she worries, the district may be pushing kids further away from school.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.