Student code of conduct updated as districts prepare to implement new school discipline law

Summer break is just getting started for many Michigan children, but state officials are already prepping for a big shift scheduled to take effect in August to the state’s school discipline law.

The Michigan Department of Education has revised its model code of student conduct to reflect a new law attempting to reduce suspensions and expulsions by softening the state’s zero-tolerance policies.

Signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in late 2016, the law ends mandatory suspensions and expulsions for offenses such as assault and bringing a weapon to school, and requires administrators to consider factors such as a student’s age and disciplinary history when deciding whether to punish a student.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says the new law is a welcome change, because it provides districts with flexibility when making disciplinary decisions.

“I was forced sometimes, I felt, under the law to expel some students that I felt probably shouldn’t have been expelled,” said Whiston, who formerly served as superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools. “There was no intent to do harm, but because they fit the zero-tolerance, I think it put us in a box where if we didn’t do it we were in jeopardy.”

The code of conduct is a tool to help school officials understand and navigate the rules surrounding student discipline. The revised code is open to public comment through July 14. It will go before the state board for final approval at its Aug. 8 meeting.

During a recent State Board of Education meeting, board member Michelle Fecteau asked what steps the department is taking to oversee whether districts are following the new law, and what consequences are in place for those that aren’t doing so.

Kyle Guerrant, a deputy superintendent at MDE, said the legislation did not give his department – or any other entity – authority to provide oversight on the implementation of the new law. Rather, he said, it’s up to parents to raise concerns with their local school board or other entities if they feel their child has been disciplined in a way that’s inconsistent with the new approach.

Michigan’s zero-tolerance law was passed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting.

The new law takes effect on Aug. 1.

Lori Clark, superintendent of the Newaygo County Regional Education Service Agency, said local schools in her area are working to fine-tune their policies and be ready to comply with the law when students return to school this fall.

“The local flexibility is good, because it looks a little different everywhere you go,” Clark said, referring to how schools handle matters of school discipline. “It looks different in East Grand Rapids than in Grand Rapids.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said his district is “ahead of the curve” in reducing suspensions. His district has been working on the matter since 2013 after the district was flagged by the state for suspending a “disproportionate number of suspensions for African-American males.”

GRPS has sought to do so through a method known as “restorative practices,” which can include having two students involved in a dispute meet with one another – in a supervised environment – to deescalate a conflict before it becomes dangerous or violent.

“We had students who were just constantly bickering and we went through the restorative practices and they are now best friends,” Helmholdt said.

Under the law, a student who brings a gun to school would still be permanently expelled, “unless the student can establish mitigating factors by clear and convincing evidence,” according to an analysis of the law by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.