MAKING THE GRADE: Zero tolerance laws: Do they help or hurt students?

By Daily News • Last Updated 11:07 am on Thursday, February 06, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

Recently I read an article in The Grand Rapids Press regarding the Michigan laws on expulsion of students more commonly known as the “zero tolerance” discipline policies. These are well intended laws originally passed in the hope that they would make schools safer and more orderly for students and staff. However, after years of use, there are concerns about some unintended consequences. As a board of education member for many years, I can tell you that expelling students is one of the most difficult responsibilities that I fulfill. I rarely sleep well after we have expelled a student, even when I agree that expulsion is the only option we had.

According to Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, a nonprofit student rights organization, “Michigan mandates expulsions that pretty much go beyond any other state in the country.”

She also makes the point, “the students that have been expelled, the students that get in trouble, are often the ones that need the most help.”

That is pretty much validated by data that shows that students who are expelled or drop out often end up in prison or jail. That is what keeps board members like me awake at night. I believe that we often have little choice either because of the law or because we are concerned about creating a safe and orderly environment for all students and staff.

A 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan also shows that minority students are more likely suspended or expelled than white students. Although this is certainly a valid concern, I want to focus my comments on the impact of both the law and reality. Sometimes board members feel limited by the law, but often they are genuinely concerned that it would be not safe for students or employees to have a student who has been recommended for expulsion or suspension returned to school. Many times the staff has exhausted all the remedies for a disruptive or dangerous student. That forces board members to choose between what might be best for everyone else and what might help a troubled student. It also raises the question of what programs are available for students who are not making it in regular school.

Once again we are confronted by the fact that too often we don’t look at the bigger picture when we try to address a problem. I have found that in many cases we are asking “should we suspend or expel?” when the better question would be, “what options do we have to correct the problems of this student?”

Usually the answer to the latter question is simply “not very many.” And then another student is removed from the school setting and too often started on a path that leads to trouble with the law and possible incarceration. The general public is deprived of a productive, contributing member of society and another life is wasted.

I can tell you that Greenville schools (and I suspect most schools in the county) make every effort to find an alternative placement for a student or programs to support for him or her during their absence from regular classes. We have had some success with helping students to return to regular classrooms and be successful, but not nearly as much as we would like.

Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told the New York Times, “Everybody recognizes right now that if we want to really find ways to close the achievement gap, we are really going to need to look at the huge number of kids being removed from school campuses who are not receiving any classroom time.”

If we are going to re-visit this issue, I would like to suggest that lawmakers and citizens both focus on the larger issues. We will be better served if we pay attention to ways to help troubled students rather than settling for removing them and moving their problems to the general public. We also need to be reminded that doing this will come with additional costs for the schools. Those costs cannot be covered by already strapped budgets. However, incarcerating these young people and taking care of other problems they may cause is also expensive and less humane.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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