The state Board of Education has made a policy recommendation that could help problem kids stay in school while giving local officials more authority to deal with discipline in ways that fit their circumstances.
Board members voted 7-1 to adopt a resolution "strongly urging" districts to study their zero tolerance policies and limit the number of offenses in which suspension and referral to law enforcement agencies is mandatory.
Board members also want to eliminate expulsions for offenses that do not include weapons.
The board said the resolution is the result of concerns about what they say is an alarming rate of suspensions and expulsions in Michigan and that there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies improve safety.
In fact, board members say such policies have a negative impact on student performance because they remove from classes the very kids who should be in school every day.
Officials say the relaxed standard should not be applied to students who bring guns to school, sexually assault other students or commit other offenses that threaten teachers or fellow students. By law, those students must be suspended or expelled.
The resolution dealt directly with the Catch-22 nature of zero-tolerance policies when dealing with issues beyond violence and guns.
"When students are repeatedly suspended, they are at substantially greater risk of leaving school altogether, and current rates of expulsion and suspension in Michigan public schools is unacceptably high."
It makes sense that suspending students most in need of class time is counter-productive. That doesn't mean, of course, that not suspending some students makes any more sense. The thing that really counts here is that local officials who know the students they're dealing with and have seen how they react to various kinds of discipline have a chance to make the punishment fit not only the crime, but the student. For non-violent offenses, zero-tolerance rules can sometimes create more trouble than they prevent.
School districts don't have to change policies or procedures because of the resolution. It is non-binding on districts. The resolution would be advisory only because the board cannot mandate districts change their policies.
This is an important issue for local districts to address. Many adopted a long list of zero-tolerance activities in the wake of the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, including — in Michigan — expulsions for students who bring any kind of weapon to school, not just a gun.
Discipline must be swift and sure, but it also needs to fit the circumstance. Zero-tolerance can too often mean zero options.