New Legislation Aims to Reduce Number of School Suspensions

From the moment students step on school property they're presented with opportunities to succeed, and to get in trouble. Most districts have a handbook on how to address behavioral issues, but right now, every school does things differently. Haslett High School Principal Bart Wegenke says he doesn't use out-of-school suspensions as a common form of punishment for one major reason.

"If you're going to suspend students at a very high rate, they're gonna be out of your buildings. When kids are out of your buildings, for long periods of time, you lose track of them," said Bart Wegenke, Principal of Haslett High School.

But there are some behavioral issues Haslett has a zero tolerance policy for, like those involving a physical altercation. If a kid gets in a fight, they will be suspended, in most cases. But new legislation proposed by state Rep. Thomas Stallworth wants to do away with zero tolerance policies, and encourage schools to try to correct a students behavior with intervention, rather than suspension.

"Sending them home often times only results in them going to another unsupervised situation where they're more likely to get in more trouble," said Rep. Thomas Stallworth (D-Detroit).

The new legislation would work like this: Before suspending a student, the school would be required to develop a plan to try to correct bad behavior. They'd also have to document a student's behavioral issues.
If a suspension does occur, the student would be connected with counseling services. Guardians could apply to have an expelled student reinstated, only after they are evaluated by a mental health professional.

According to the ACLU there were 3 million suspensions in 2000, up from only 1.7 million 25 years earlier. But Principal Wegenke says there are some places where it simply the most effective punishment.

"You're suspending students for a purpose it's to one call attention to that suspended student that their behavior is inappropriate, as well as the other people who have may been involved or around that situation," said Wegenke.

Suspension sends a message, but the question remains whether it's an effective one. The Michigan Department of Community Health and the State Board of Education have partnered to support this bill. They've agreed to provide school with access to behavioral experts through the DCH Network, if the legislation is passed. Rep. Stallworth is now trying to get the House Education Committee to take up the bill.

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