Michigan students march to end ‘zero tolerance’ approach to school discipline

BY Kyla Calvert  April 18, 2014 at 2:53 PM EDT
Students, teachers and educators in Detroit will march to Michigan's capital in Lansing to protest what they feel is an unfair "zero tolerance" discipline policy in schools. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Students, teachers and educators in Detroit will march to Michigan’s capital in Lansing to protest what they feel is an unfair “zero tolerance” discipline policy in schools. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

About 150 Michigan students, parents and educators plan to take the 90-mile trip from Detroit to the state’s capital in Lansing Monday through Wednesday to protest schools’ zero-tolerance discipline policies. That may not seem like much of an undertaking – but they’re making the trek on foot.

The three-day march is the work of a group called Youth Voice. The group’s co-president, 16-year-old Michael Reynolds, was suspended for five days in 2013 for not having his student ID card on multiple occasions.

“It hurts me because schools are pushing kids out in the streets,” Reynolds told the Detroit Free Press about seeing students miss school for minor infractions like his. “If we’re in the streets, nothing good can come of it. I think sometimes the schools set us up for failure.”

Michigan is one of several states reconsidering its discipline policies. The Obama administration started urging schools to make changes like this earlier this year, citing data that showed harsh discipline options like suspension and expulsion are more likely to be used with black and Latino students.

Colorado was an early adopter of less extreme discipline policies. The state legislature passed a bill in 2012 that whittled the list of offenses that made students eligible for immediate suspension or expulsion down to just one: bringing a firearm onto a school campus.

The PBS NewsHour visited Colorado earlier in February to learn about the restorative justice program one high school is using in the place of old zero tolerance policies.

But – some signs point to the need for robust planning and support when new discipline policies are adopted. Teachers in Denver schools reported an increase in disruptive and dangerous behavior once swift suspension and expulsion were off the table. The state even saw a spike in the number of black and Native American students referred to the local police over in-school incidents in the year after the policy change.

This story and PBS NewsHour’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.