In 1995 the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring that any student found to be in possession of a weapon face a hearing and possible expulsion. Known as the "zero-tolerance" policy, the law mandated that schools around the state-public and private-comply, but allowed for certain exceptions to be made by local school administrators in unusual circumstances. However, a growing number of parents, advocates, students, and others affected by the policy are worried that this hard-line approach to student discipline, while politically popular, may be ineffective.
In the wake of the highly publicized school shootings in Littleton, Colo. and Mt. Morris Township's Buell Elementary, few would argue that school safety is not important for schools. Many Michigan politicians, school administrators, and educators view zero-tolerance as a necessary and effective component of the effort to combat violence in schools. But some fear that the policy may actually harm those punished as well as the very students that the policies were designed to protect.
In a recent case, Jeremy Hix, a senior in Holt, Mich., was nearly expelled under his school's zero tolerance policy when he brought a small ceremonial blade as a part of his costume to the high school prom. In another case, Derrick Sorenson, a 13-year-old Livonia resident, was expelled for carrying a baseball bat to school.
Zero-tolerance policies are now extending to behavior not involving weapons. Recently in Mount Pleasant, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a student suspended over reading a parody of his school's tardiness policy. Nationally, students have been expelled for cases involving carrying over-the-counter medication, and using violent or objectionable language.
Recently, the American Bar Association criticized zero-tolerance policies, saying that they "fail to take into account the circumstances or nature of an offense or an accused student's history."
Ruth Zweifler, director of the Ann Arbor-based Student Advocacy Center (SAC), also disagrees with zero-tolerance policies. Her center was established to assist students with various aspects of school related disciplinary issues, up to and including expulsion.
"The mandatory expulsion law was marketed as a way to stop dangerous `punks,' older adolescents with guns," says Zweifler. "In reality, instead of netting sharks, the law and its attendant policies and practices are catching minnows-young children who are often frightened, sometimes thoughtless, rarely dangerous, but now clearly endangered."
According to SAC publications, Zweifler says many students expelled under zero-tolerance policies find themselves bewildered by a bureaucratic process that is difficult to navigate, frequently dissimilar to the court system, and without any educational alternatives after expulsion.
Currently, under Michigan law, school districts are not required to provide any sort of alternative education to expelled students. Under some circumstances districts are even prohibited from providing alternative options. However, a 1997 study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that many school districts contract with private educational institutions to handle the most troubled students. "Those students whom the public schools cannot or will not enroll are often sent, at public expense, to private schools with expertise in educating a certain type of student," according to the study's authors Dr. Thomas Bertonneau and Janet Beales.
Some charter schools, such as Saginaw's Benito Juarez Academy, also specialize in helping troubled or at-risk students. "Our staff is particularly committed to working with at-risk, low-achieving, culturally and linguistically different, gang-associated, and typically recalcitrant youths," said Dr. Laurencio Peña, former director of the academy. "We select teachers who possess the belief that they can make a difference in these kids' lives."
According to the Detroit Free Press, the Michigan Department of Education estimates over 1,200 students are expelled in Michigan each year. Estimates from the Oakland County Intermediate School District place the number of students expelled there at 79 during the 1999-2000 school year. By comparison, Oakland County schools expelled only 35 during a three-year period ending in 1998, before the schools began enforcing a zero-tolerance policy. Another report by the Michigan Family Independence Agency covering a three-year period from Jan. 1, 1995, to Dec. 31, 1997, states that there were 471 weapon-related expulsions reported to them.
Despite the number of expulsions growing under zero-tolerance policies, national juvenile crime rates have remained relatively constant or have declined marginally. In a recent study, the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute found that between 1975 and 1998 the percentage of reported victimization in schools decreased only slightly, while the rate of suspensions and expulsions in schools nearly doubled, rising from 3.7 percent of students in 1974 to 6.8 percent in 1998.
Meanwhile, a 1999 opinion poll indicated that the general public believed juvenile crime was on the rise. Public perception of juvenile crime is an important factor in the widespread implementation of zero tolerance policies.
Many school officials subscribe to a "better safe than sorry" policy in an era of high profile media stories of tragic violence and legal liability. In a recent Detroit Free Press article, Mark Shultz, supervisor of public safety for Livonia schools was quoted as saying, "Columbine has made everybody a little more aware. . . . You bring a weapon to school, we're going to take the hard line."
Despite critics who claim that the inflexibility of zero-tolerance policies treats many students unfairly, Olivet Community Schools superintendent David Campbell asserts that ultimately, the decision to expel is not mandated by zero tolerance policies, but rather rests in the hands of local school boards.
"Olivet's interpretation of the zero tolerance weapons law is that there are four exceptions to mandatory expulsion and that the only true mandate in the law is the expulsion hearing," says Campbell. "At the mandatory hearing, the board of education listens to all sides and makes a determination as to whether an actual expulsion is deserved."
As a result of its zero-tolerance policy, Michigan will face a number of issues in the future ranging from providing alternative education for students expelled from primary and secondary schools to justifying a policy criticized by some as inflexible, potentially unfair, and sometimes contrary to basic judicial norms like individualized consideration and punishment under civil law.
Ultimately, the future of zero-tolerance policies is likely to be decided locally as the policy is interpreted differently according to varying security needs and prevailing attitudes regarding discipline.