It has been two months since the tragic school shooting at Oxford that left four students dead and many others injured. Our hearts break for those families and that school community. 

At Student Advocacy Center, we continue to navigate complex fallout from Oxford — including a surge of calls from desperate families ensnared in a revived zero tolerance web.

As you may know, harsh school discipline emerged as schools desegregated and a racialized war on drugs was launched. But the approach gained steam after incidents such as Columbine. Schools were scared. Families were scared. Zero tolerance seemed like the best way — to some — to make our schools safe.

Only problem was, it didn’t work. 

Zero tolerance only provided perceived comfort to scared communities. But rather than make our schools safer, research shows that higher rates of out-of-school suspensions predict higher future rates of misbehavior and damage perceptions among students of school safety. Harsh discipline also has a negative impact on achievement, graduation, and involvement in the criminal legal system.

And it has been inequitably applied, affecting students on the fringes with the most dire consequences. Students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are currently or formerly homeless are disproportionately impacted.

Maybe they didn’t know all that back in the 1990s. But we know it now.  So to hear the tired rhetoric of zero tolerance re-emerge since the Oxford shooting is disheartening. 

For the families of children making dumb mistakes (more often saying dumb things), it’s heartwrenching. They are told – we know your child probably isn’t going to do anything, but we have no choice. Public pressure is too great. We have to kick out your child. 

SAC has stood beside these families, as we always have, explaining rights and options, connecting to resources, assessing potential risk and supporting schools in thinking about alternatives (such as backpack / safety checks, check in-check out systems, mentoring, mental health support). 

There are glimmers of hope: 

  • We have been encouraged when we have been able to safely avert expulsions for students whose behavior was not truly a threat. 
  • Many school districts are using multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams and making careful, informed decisions about next steps. 
  • Places like Wayne RESA have issued strong nuanced guidance for schools that notes excluding a student from school does not eliminate the risk to the school or community. 

At SAC, we know suspension and expulsion is experienced as deep rejection by youth who need more support, not less. We applaud schools who keep working to develop strategies to stay connected to students and get to the root of issues. We applaud school leaders who are brave enough to reject knee-jerk public pressures to enact zero tolerance — but instead take the time to explain what we know actually works about school safety.

So what can you do?

  • Get involved in your local school board. We are looking for people to attend school board meetings and provide public comment. We are working with the Michigan Education Justice Coalition to provide training and support. Sign up here.
  • If your child is in school, tell the principal you support efforts to keep students in school, especially when the threat has been determined to be transient. Consider sharing the Wayne RESA resource
  • Ask our state legislator for a hearing on a bill package that will make school discipline processes more fair and transparent for families. The letter to do that is on a banner on our homepage.