Adam Walker Interviewed by Detroit News on suspensions, expulsions spike in Michigan’s schools
***On November 14, 2021, Adam Walker was interviewed for a Detroit News article authored by Jennifer Chambers.***
Groups alarmed as suspensions, expulsions spike in Michigan’s schools
Kristine Hickman’s 11-year-old son was excited to return to school on Oct. 1 after being expelled for 180 days for bringing a marijuana gummy to class last spring.
His first day back was his last — until 2022. Van Buren Public School officials found a toy gun in the fifth grader’s backpack and expelled him again — this time until January.
The case is one example of a statewide spike in suspensions and expulsions happening in Michigan districts in the first two months of the new school year, according to legal observers, educators and a Michigan student advocacy group.
The Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, which helps families involved in student discipline cases navigate their rights, says its statewide helpline has been inundated the last two months with calls from parents who say their kids are being kicked out of school for months over minor incidents like vaping.
Cases involving expulsion in September and October are up more than six-fold, from three in September and October of 2019, before the pandemic began, to 19this year, said Amy Wilhelm, the center’s programs manager. Instances of students being suspended for 10 or more days rose from four to 27 in the same time frame, she said.
The state Department of Education didn’t respond or provide data on expulsions forthe first two months of this school year. Districts aren’t required to report suspension data to the state.
Most agree two factors are to blame: the lingering effects from the pandemic, which isolated students who are now readjusting to being back in school and around people full-time, and the strain of a severe statewide staffing shortage. Principals in some instances have been forced to substitute for teachers in classrooms, and the staffing shortfall has left some educators with little patience forbad behavior.
Attorney Adam Walker, with the Grand Rapids-based law firm Miller Johnson, advises school districts on student discipline. He said he has heard directly from superintendents about the explosion of disciplinary cases statewide and the resulting increase in both suspensions and expulsions in September and October.
“Superintendents will call and say, ‘I have this situation going on with student behavior. It is just not tolerable in a school environment.’ They ask, ‘Is this just my district?'” Walker said. “I tell them we are getting calls from all over the state. It’s statewide and I think nationwide.”
Schools are seeing more fights, non-consensual touching and knives with blades of 3 inches, Walker said.
“Students have been through trauma and isolation,” Walker said. “Adults have had problems dealing with the pandemic and conflicts. So you have a situation where students are back and there is this rough adjustment period. We can’t expect students who are not fully developed adults to have the capacity to self-regulate.”
In Michigan, when students are removed from school for discipline, districts are not required to provide full-time learning opportunities unless the student has a disability. Many schools only provide access to an online program or a tutor who provides a handful of hours a week of instruction rather than alternative schools for offenders.
Twenty-nine states require alternative education programs for disciplined students, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Michigan only encourages districts to operate alternative school programs or ensure access to educational services in an alternative setting to expelled students.
Walker said although expulsion before the pandemic might have seemed like a good option, he suggested districts consider another intervention method and lesser discipline for students who may be acting out.
All Michigan school districts are required to consider restorative practices in punishments after the state updated its student discipline laws in 2017. That includes analyzing seven factors, including a student’s age, disability status, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation, before suspending or expelling a student.
That was part of the change in the law that was intended to mark a movement away from “zero-tolerance” discipline practices by schools.
“There is a lot of discretion. At the end of the day a pandemic is the ideal environment in which discretion needs to be used,” Walker said. “It’s a difference indegree. It’s a difference in having a little bit more patience.”
‘Sad and crushed’
Michigan has cases where students are expelled for a year with no right to appeal, where the student wasn’t allowed to speak at a discipline hearing until after the school board announced its decision and where parents were given no documentation that the seven state-mandated factors were considered, said Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan.
“We are sad and crushed,” Stone-Palmquist said. ‘”There was so much rhetoric that kids are going to be struggling when they come back. We have to be ready to give them a soft landing and give them another chance.”
Stone-Palmquist says recent cases involve student aggression, fight and outbursts— some related to TikTok challenges to vandalize bathrooms in September and slap a teacher in October.
“We have heard about more weapons (violations) and more vaping. Rather than taking a harm-reduction approach, they are saying, ‘We are going to kick you out,'” Stone-Palmquist said.
The center doesn’t condone kids getting into fights and taking vapes to school,” the center’s Wilhelm said, but alternatives should be pursued.
“It’s really harmful for kids to be put out especially after COVID,” she added. “It’s difficult on the districts, but this harsh response is devastating for kids and really puts them at risk for the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Does new law work?
According to state data, 1,238 students were expelled in the 2016-17 schoolyear. Expulsions began to decline in the 2017-18 school year after lawmakers changed the rules for student expulsion and required districts to consider restorative practices in punishments. That year 1,091 students were expelled.
Expulsions fell to 1,087 students in 2018-19 and 867 students in 2019-20.
Data from the student advocacy center shows the state had 188 expulsions during the 2020-21 school year, although many students remained home learning online rather than attending school in person.
Pete Kudlak, superintendent of Van Buren Public Schools, said his district is experiencing an increase in student behavior incidents. Staff is spending more time managing that compared with prior years, but suspensions and expulsions are not up, he said.
“We are doing more interventions, restorative work and bringing them in to talk about behavior,” Kudlak said.
The superintendent has the sole authority to make decisions on student discipline in the Van Buren district, although in other Michigan districts the school board or acommittee of staffers preside over discipline hearings and mete out punishment.
“It’s unusual here. I came here in 2016 and it was already like that,” Kudlak said. “The board is not interested in doing it. I am doing it. It’s working OK. They trust me to do.”
In 2018, Van Buren Public Schools was among 19 Michigan districts cited by the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education as having “significant disproportionality” in discipline. The office identifies school districts —based on suspension and expulsion data — that are disciplining a subgroup of special education students more than they statistically should be based on student population.
In Van Buren’s case, it was for minority students of two or more races.
New rules proposed
Kudlak said he doesn’t think a package of bills that have been proposed to prevent expulsions is needed because the system is working. What does need to change, he said, is the fact that state law only requires schools to provide an education for students with disabilities who have been kicked out of school.
“Everyone else, there is no obligation,” Kudlak said. “It’s not so great for kids. Each district can’t solve that problem. We need a state or county solution. There is a huge hole.”
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor said the changes in 2017 designed to end zero-tolerance attitudes did not result in improved statewide discipline policies.
“Some districts have really taken it to heart and the process, and other districts have ignored that change in the law and engaged in practices that push kids out of school,” Irwin said.
Irwin and fellow Democratic lawmakers introduced in September the package of“ expulsion prevention” bills in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“They are designed to keep kids in school and reduce the number of students who are pushed out of the classroom,” Irwin said, “Right now, Michigan has no set standards for students or their parents and guardians to assert their due process rights. These bills ensure they will be able to.”
Pushing kids out of school is the worst remedy for children and for the state’s mission to make sure they are educated, the lawmaker said. Cases of insubordination or talking back to adults should not result in expulsion but do, Irwin said.
The bills require proof of documentation that the seven factors were considered and why they were or were not a factor in discipline, he said. They also require a family to get documentation of evidence before the hearing so they have time to prepare and be given a right to appeal.
“These bills they create guard rails to make sure all students get due process indiscipline and that expulsion is really a last resort,” he said. “When kids come to school with trauma and other things they are facing outside school, the public needs to do extra work to keep them in school.”
The bills, which do not have a Republican sponsor, have been presented to the Education Committee and await a hearing.
Charles Bell, an assistant professor in criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, says excessive disciplinary policies in Michigan’s K-12 schools have created a culture of punishment and victimization.
Bell, who published a book in September on the cycle of fighting and punishment in schools, said his research shows suspensions and expulsions have been on the risesince 2015 in Metro Detroit schools. Bell says many districts have removed suspension data from their public websites. He has requested it through Freedom of Information Act requests, which have been mostly denied.
“What I see in Michigan is a resistance to do something different than suspension. Suspension is the norm and that is the problem,” Bell said. “These reforms, they didn’t work. Some districts even doubled down on suspension being a primary strategy.”
Districts are required to report only expulsion data to the state. Irwin’s bills would mandate public reporting of suspension data. Bell’s advice for Michigan is to follow the laws in place, pass the reform bills and get to know the kids who are struggling.
“Understand the children you are educating,” Bell said. “Learn about their environment. A child who brought a toy gun to school has no malice. Especially at a time when (students) need an education and you are jeopardizing that because of a toy gun.”
Understanding student trauma
Dearborn Public Schools has trained its staff in student trauma, hired more social workers and adopted multiple preventive approaches like community restorative circles to support students and reduce the number of discipline cases in its schools.
From 2015 to 2018, Dearborn Public Schools was cited by the state for having a disproportionate amount of discipline for minority students. The state tells districts that as part of its monitoring of students with disabilities, it expects “the percentage of suspensions by ethnicity would match the percentage of each ethnicity within the population.” There is no penalty for being cited.
Mike Esseily, executive director of special populations at Dearborn Public Schools, said the district focused on understanding student trauma.
“The first thing we did this year, and we are so proud of it, we built a trauma-informed model. We trained every staff member on trauma and the impact of trauma,” Esseily said. “It helped really develop and change the perspective of staff members and working with students.”
In 2016, the district had around 25 social workers. It now has 50, Esseily said. The district has a social-emotional hotline and one of its high schools is part of TRAILS(Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students), a school mental health program designed by the University of Michigan to increase youth access to mental health services.
“We don’t want to be punitive. We want to help our students recover from whatever situation they are going through,” Esseily said.
Violet Souweidane, a district student empowerment facilitator, sat with six students from Fordson High School in a circle on Tuesday and talked about restorative practices methods. She asked students, who have been in training for weeks, how they recently used restorative language to address conflicts with others.
“What we’ve done here is take a group of students and trained them on restorative practices because we want them to be mediators so when conflict arises and students are sent down to the office they can sit down with peers, have their voices heard and with their peers, process what happened and what consequence needs to come,” Souweidane said. “So that hopefully reduces suspensions.”
Students gave examples: Her brother and mother were arguing at home at the dinner table, so student Aya Bazzoun used some restorative lingo.
“I asked my brother, ‘What were you thinking when you said this?’
“I was shocked. It worked. They actually listened to each other,” said Bazzoun, 15.”Then he apologized to her.”
Student Rawa Albarkat said she was part of a group chat that turned nasty between two students. She private messaged the two girls from the chat separately and asked them some of the questions listed on a card used in training.
“I spoke to the girl who was considered the victim and she said she was to blame, too. I also talked to the other girl. I think it made them closer,” Albarkat said.
Souweidane said the voices of students are critical to addressing student behaviors and discipline.
“The only way you are going to affect change is to have those that are involved be apart of the process,” Souweidane said.