Under pressure from school administrators, Michigan lawmakers have taken a step backwards with recent changes to the expulsion law. Suspensions and expulsions are no longer mandatory disciplinary options. And relaxing the zero tolerance for weapons possession plays Russian roulette with the lives of children.
Under new rules approved by state lawmakers in 2016, school districts are now required to apply “restorative practices” to address bullying and other inappropriate student behavior. In lieu of suspensions or expulsions, wayward students must engage in “circle conversations,” a utopian ritual akin to sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing kumbaya.
It’s a feel good, free-wheeling exercise, for sure. Imagine, though, forcing a bully and his or her victim to join hands in a makeup session. Such situations are at best, awkward – at worse, terrifying. Hard feelings and resentments don’t dissipate that easily.
In lieu of suspensions or expulsions, wayward students must engage in “circle conversations,” a utopian ritual akin to sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing kumbaya.
Worse, before a student can be kicked out of school, officials must take under consideration a student’s age, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the assault. Also limited to fewer than 60 is the number of days a student can be expelled.
Extreme exceptions are also made for firearm offenses. Previously, students found with guns or knives on school property got no second chance, no appeals. School administrators, though, felt that the hard lined “zero tolerance” penalized too many young, unwitting students by not allowing the consideration of extenuating circumstances.
Under the new law, expulsion becomes discretionary if the firearm was not possessed or used as a weapon, the student didn’t know he or she had the firearm or was unaware the weapon was a firearm. If it is a first offense, and any of the above factors are in play, expulsion cannot take place.
Parents should not only beware, they should be incensed. Age and grade notwithstanding, in the classrooms of today, expulsion is a necessary punishment for, not only for gun violations but other forms of violence.
As applied, the changes pose a serious threat to every aspect of the educational process. This watered-down the expulsion law ultimately produces a toothless, escape clause riddled regulation that effectively destroys the purpose of the law.
Front-line teachers and principals need the ability to command respect by being tough-mined and fair disciplinarians. They can’t be effective if school violence is rewarded with a slap on the wrist.
The rights of offenders must not take precedence over those students who enter classrooms intent on learning. Purging problem students must be a priority, if not by expulsion, then by separating them from the main body of pupils who play by the rules and respect those in authority. It is now questionable whether schools have the right or the will to provide a safe environment, which is fundamental to learning.
Regrettable the rule changes have more to do with student headcounts than school safety. Some expelled students drop out. Others go to charter or private schools or end up being homeschooled. In any event, schools experiencing such events lose students, and by extension, lose money. Therein lies the basis for the changes. But if school districts won’t get behind ousting disruptive kids, they should at least provide “alternative” schools for the unruly.
Ultimately parents have a responsibility to closely monitor their children’s behavior. Parents also need assurances that their children will be safe in the confines of the school. Parents and students must know that predictable, unequivocal and sometime dire consequences await violators of basic standards of behavior. Additionally, schools are ill-prepared to become surrogate mothers or fathers and apply structure and discipline children need.
Needed is the return to a common sense policy once sustained by the Legislature, supported by parents and rigorously enforced by school administrations. The current law doesn’t make the grade.
Editor’s note: Bill Johnson is an award-winning freelance broadcast and print news journalist and former Detroit News columnist. He served as Public Affairs Officer for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept.; as CEO for the Wayne County Commission, 2003-2010; as press secretary for Wayne Co. Executive Bill Lucas, 1983 – 1986. Johnson, has been a frequent voice on Detroit radio and television. He runs his own political consulting firm, the Bill Johnson Group.