Michigan and Baltimore Take Steps to Keep Students in School
By Kristin Schwam, Dignity in Schools Campaign
The state Board of Education in Michigan is joining many school boards across the nation in taking action to reevaluate their discipline codes and practices as more and more stories and statistics come to light highlighting the ineffectiveness and inequality of public school discipline practices.
In the 2010-2011 school year in Michigan, there were more than 1,400 expulsions, 938 of which were for 100 days or more, putting those students almost one full school year behind. In 138 cases, the students were expelled permanently. Members of the school board have realized that something is clearly wrong. Either students are much more disorderly than they were a couple decades ago, and there is no data to support this assertion, or something is wrong with the way discipline is being handled in schools.
Nancy Danholf, the secretary of the Michigan state school board, said that there is an alarming rate of suspensions throughout the state, and little evidence to show that zero-tolerance policies are improving students’ safety. The state school board created a resolution asking school districts to consider using positive alternatives like restorative justice rather than continuing to carry out the punitive measures that push students out of school. The resolution passed 7 to 1.
Other districts and states are taking similar steps. In Baltimore, the school board recently voted to get rid of its zero-tolerance policy, and begin a new discipline approach that gives principals and administrators more discretion in deciding how to handle offenses. Baltimore’s new discipline policy is intended to reduce the number of days students are suspended, therefore reducing the chance that a suspended student will drop out.
Measures, such as those taken by Michigan and Baltimore, represent small initial steps towards addressing the human rights crisis we face in our schools. While the United States’ $14.5 trillion gross domestic product might make it the number one economy in the world, the U.S. is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to our youth’s proficiency in reading, mathematics, and science. Coming in behind far less developed countries such as Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, the United States cannot boast to be the powerhouse of knowledge and education that it was in the post-war era.
Does this generation of students have a lesser capacity to learn? Of course not! As they stand, public schools in the United States are failing our students in a number of ways, including by continuing to use harmful and ineffective punitive measures. These measures include placing increasing numbers of police and school resource officers in our schools, and suspending and expelling students for minor infractions like insubordination, defiance, and acting out in class. In one recent high profile case, seventeen-year-old Diane Tran was sentenced to spend 24 hours in jail by a Texas juvenile court for missing class while working two jobs to support her siblings.
Schools should be places where young people are supported to develop their full academic, social and emotional potential to become active participants in society to support their families and improve their communities. Yet more and more, the growing trend is that schools are “pushing” students out of the education system and into low wage jobs and prisons.
When schools push students out and on to the streets without a high school diploma, those students will make 30% less than the average high school graduate, are 3 times more likely to be unemployed, and are 8 times more likely to end up in prison than their peers who graduate. The United States accounts for 25% of all prisoners worldwide, but the U.S. only accounts for 5% of the global population.
If schools in the United States were more accountable for their students, and the system didn’t give up on students labeled as “difficult,” our nation would be a much more positive, productive and knowledgeable place. If schools placed faith in their students instead of placing police in the hallways, the school’s environment would be much more suitable for learning. Economically speaking, it is much more cost effective to educate a student than to incarcerate a young person.
It’s time that we stop treating students like criminals. It’s time to get rid of the zero-tolerance policies that leave no room for school administrators to implement positive alternatives to suspension and expulsion. It’s time that school districts around the country follow the example laid out by Michigan and Baltimore, and realize that the numbers don’t lie—punitive measures are not creating better environments in schools, but only contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline for our nation’s youth.
Read more about Michigan and Baltimore's proposed changes here:
Detroit Free Press: State May Urge Schools to Rethink Zero-Tolerance Rules for Students
Baltimore Sun: Baltimore County School Board Eases Discipline Policy
Read about Diane Tran's high profile court case:
PBS Newshour: Harsh Punishment for Misbehavior in Texas Schools