A Zero-Sum Game: How Michigan’s School Discipline Laws Harm Special-Education Students

April 21, 2015

Special-education students in Michigan are being pushed out of public schools at an alarming rate—with far too many of them being driven directly in the school-to-prison pipeline. And increasingly, our zero-tolerance laws are a big reason why.

Michigan has one of the most expansive zero-tolerance policies in the nation, second only to Texas. Meanwhile, Michigan is one of only 12 states whose zero-tolerance laws enforce mandatory expulsion for violations beyond possession of weapons.

These laws are problematic because they increase the likelihood that a student will be expelled or suspended from school for minor offenses and general misbehavior, not for potentially dangerous offenses. Minority students and special education students are particularly likely to be suspended and/or expelled for these reasons.

Special-education students are entitled to certain accommodations under Michigan law, through federal laws such as IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Act) and state laws such as the MMSEA (Michigan Mandatory Special Education Act) and Section 504.

However, expansive zero-tolerance policies often conflict with these laws, such as in instances where the behavior of special-education students may mistakenly be seen as harmful. Special education students may then be punished for behaviors that are out of their control and pushed into the school to prison pipeline. And from there, they are shoved into the criminal-justice system.

This is unacceptable. Education is not a privilege granted based on behavior. It is a right that all children have. Taking away a student’s education under the pretext of safety and protection is a disservice to the child and to the community at large.

The zero tolerance laws may have been intended to protect students, but instead they have done the opposite. Michigan legislators need to take a serious look at the implications of their zero tolerance laws, and work towards reform. Reducing the amount of expellable offenses would ensure that the zero tolerance laws serve their intended purpose, and to help students thrive in school and beyond.

By Leslie Welch