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Kayla Mason, 26, and Michael Reynolds, 16, of Youth Voice, which encourages young people to develop leadership skills and impact their communities, hope to change rules that suspend or expel kids for minor offenses. / Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press

DETROIT -- Michael Reynolds is willing to go to extremes to shed light on what he says is a big problem: zero-tolerance policies that are driving kids like him out of school for often-minor offenses.

He and dozens of others will march from Detroit to Lansing from Monday to Wednesday to draw attention to their concerns and to urge schools to adopt policies that limit lengthy expulsions and suspensions to the most serious offenses.

"It hurts me because schools are pushing kids out in the streets," said Michael, 16, co-president of Youth Voice, the group organizing the march. "If we're in the streets, nothing good can come of it. I think sometimes the schools set us up for failure."

Michael missed a week of class last year after being suspended for breaking a school rule.

The walk is happening at a time when officials at the state and national level are raising concerns that too many kids are being kicked out of school for non-serious offenses. The State Board of Education is expected to take action next month on a proposed model policy for reducing suspensions and expulsions - one that urges schools to reserve such practices for "only the most serious offenses, and to adopt practices that allow educators to address disciplinary matters as opportunities for learning."

A statewide summit in September - focused on keeping kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system - also identified suspensions and expulsions as leading to increases in the dropout rate and rate of juvenile crime.

During the 2012-13 school year, there were 1,796 expulsions across Michigan's public schools. That's down from 1,893 in the previous school year.

Schools are not required to report suspension data. Suspensions can last anywhere from a few hours to 180 days.

No one is saying students who misbehave or violate rules shouldn't be dealt with. But minor infractions "are no reason to take someone's education away," Michael said.

He said he was suspended last school year, when he attended Cody Academy of Public Leadership in Detroit, for not having his identification card. It was not the first time he'd failed to have his ID, but this time, the punishment was suspension for five days. He was then picked up by police officers for truancy and missed two more school days fighting the charge. Michael said a judge dismissed the truancy charge, but the time away from school hurt.

"I was behind. It was really hard for me to catch back up," said Michael, a junior at Loyola High School. Officials with Detroit Public Schools, where Cody is located, declined to comment.

Students and educators are often on opposite ends of the debate when it comes to discipline, said Kyle Guerrant, a deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education. During focus groups with students last year, it was clear they recognized the need for discipline, but they wanted to learn from their mistakes rather than be shut out of school. But adults in schools are focused with overall safety, Guerrant said.

"Those fundamental differences help us get to where we have a large number of students who are missing a lot of days, and we think there's a better way to handle that," Guerrant said.

Priscilla Cook said she believes a permanent expulsion was too severe a punishment for her daughter, Robyn. A twitter feud with a classmate led to a fistfight at Milan High in early March. Her daughter had been earning As and Bs but is now struggling in an alternative program.

"My daughter is an honor student. She's never been in trouble," Cook said.

Milan Superintendent Bryan Girbach said he couldn't comment on the expulsion, but he said his district does not believe in a zero-tolerance philosophy.

"The only zero-tolerance policies we have are the ones required by state law," Girbach said, referring to state rules regarding expulsion and suspension when there's an assault or if weapons are involved. "We believe in progressive discipline and looking at each individual case and determining what the appropriate consequences are for the child's action."

Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, said a restorative justice program would have been more effective for Robyn because it would have given both students involved an opportunity to talk to each other and hear from the teachers who tried to break up the fight.

"You really have the kids hear about the impact of their behavior," said Stone-Palmquist, whose group - which works to keep kids in school - has been assisting the Cook family. "It teaches skills. It teaches responsibility."

Stone-Palmquist and Guerrant also are concerned that Michigan's laws primarily leave it up to parents to find options after their children have been expelled or suspended. Ypsilanti's Suna Shawakha, for instance, has been unable to find an alternative for her seventh-grade son who was recently suspended 180 days for his involvement in a fight at South Arbor Charter Academy .

"I feel like the same policies that are put into effect to protect our children are actually turning around and hurting our children," she said.

South Arbor Principal Kim Bondy said she can't discuss disciplinary actions, but said the school holds students to a high standard of expectations that are in line with state law.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Students, parents challenge zero-tolerance policies

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