ACLU: Mich. zero-tolerance law unfair to black students

Schools are not using enough discretion under Michigan's zero-tolerance expulsion law and are disproportionately kicking out black students who ultimately end up behind bars, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.


Associated Press Writer

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Schools are not using enough discretion under Michigan’s zero-tolerance expulsion law and are disproportionately kicking out black students who ultimately end up behind bars, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The study by the ACLU of Michigan was released Wednesday. It identifies a school-to-prison pipeline it says has been created by suspension policies, cultural stereotypes, referrals to law enforcement for school fights and factors such as not requiring expelled students to get an alternative education.

Michigan’s 1995 zero-tolerance law requires an expulsion for possessing any “dangerous weapon,” and the ACLU says it is broader than required by federal law. The ACLU wants state law to be eased so only firearms possession is subject to mandatory expulsion.

The ACLU’s report says students were disciplined for bringing a toy gun, novelty lighter and eyebrow archer to school.

It also says a high school student was recommended for expulsion after buying a 2½-inch knife on vacation and forgetting it was in his backpack. The school board reversed administrators’ decision after the teen’s parents hired a lawyer.

The study says school officials should “avoid blind, mechanical application of rules designed to purge students from the school roster” and instead “give careful individualized consideration to the circumstances of each child.”

“The law is so broad we think some school districts aren’t quite sure what’s allowed, and they’re erring on the side of being very cautious and expelling students,” ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss told The Associated Press.

The Michigan Association of School Boards declined to comment, saying it had not had a chance read the report.

The ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get suspension data from certain K-12 districts across Michigan.

The group says that data shows that blacks are disproportionately being removed from public schools.

At Lincoln Consolidated Schools in Ypsilanti, blacks were just under one-third of 2,786 students in grades six through 12 in the 2006-07 academic year but received 52 percent of the 870 suspensions. At Ann Arbor Public Schools, black students were 18 percent of sixth- to 12th-grade students in 2006-07 yet got 58 percent of the suspensions.

The Ann Arbor district said its superintendent would be available for comment next week.

The ACLU says it would be wrong to assume blacks misbehave more than whites. Poverty could lead to the “staggering” number of suspensions in predominantly black Detroit and Flint, the report says, but blacks also were suspended more in suburban districts with lower poverty rates.

The study also faults administrators for too often referring students to law enforcement instead of using other means of discipline.

“One issue that seems to be under everyone’s radar is the astronomical number of children moving out of schools and into the criminal justice system,” Moss said, noting Michigan had 41,000 juvenile arrests in 2007. “If we really value education in this state, we can’t forget the 41,000 kids a year being lost to the system. We’ve got to take responsibility for figuring out what’s contributing to that problem.”

Desiree Ferguson’s daughter was a sophomore at the all-girls Detroit International Academy two years ago when, during a routine search of her purse, a security guard found a pencil-sized device to arch eyebrows. The school said the eyebrow archer was a weapon because it had a razor-like blade. The girl, whose name is not being released to protect her privacy, was suspended for several days and threatened with expulsion despite having no history of causing trouble.

“This object was put in the same category as a loaded gun,” said Ferguson, a criminal defense attorney.

She intervened on her daughter’s behalf and persuaded school officials to downgrade the offense, though it stayed on the girl’s record.

Ferguson agrees with the study’s finding that most students facing expulsion lack advocates to insist the punishment is improper, particularly in poor urban cities like Detroit.

“You have a lot of parents working crazy hours,” she said. “Maybe they have dysfunctional issues going on in the family where maybe they’re not immediately available. I have a lot more resources at my disposal and time and wherewithal to jump in there and fight.”

Read the ACLU report

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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