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Flexibility in Zero Tolerance Laws Passes House

Aaron Keel

By Aaron Keel, MASB Assistant Director of Government Relations

DashBoard, June 8, 2016

In the 1990s, zero tolerance laws, which required the permanent expulsion of students for certain offenses with little local discretion, swept the nation in an effort to keep schools safe. However, since their enactment, we have seen unintended consequences and the sometimes devastating impact such a policy can have. With no ability to consider a student's age, developmental abilities, or intent, the discipline of immediate and permanent expulsion often does not fit the crime.

For years, districts and MASB have fought for additional flexibility when it comes to state-mandated expulsion; and we are pleased to report that last week the House of Representatives took a positive bi-partisan step in granting districts this flexibility by passing House Bills 5618-5621 and 5693-5695. The bills are now before the Senate for consideration.

In an effort to decrease the total number of expulsions and suspensions, and to keep more students in the classroom, the bills amend all of the zero tolerance sections of law to require that certain factors be given consideration before expelling or suspending a student, including the student’s age, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the offense. Additionally, the bills encourage the use of restorative justice practices which emphasize repairing harms to the victim and the school community caused by the student’s misconduct instead of suspension or expulsion if appropriate.

The only instance it will not give additional flexibility to schools is when considering firearm expulsions. Federal regulations require a minimum of a one-year expulsion for possessing a firearm in a weapons free school zone. However, it also allows limited local discretion on a case-by-case basis.  During debate on the House floor, the section allowing the case-by-case modification was amended to add a rebuttal presumption. It now states that if a student meets one of the four criteria established under current law or does not have a history of suspension or expulsion, then the expulsion is presumed to not be justified. While we are pleased to see this package move forward, we have great concerns with this added language in HB 5693, including the possibility of increased liability.

We are currently working with the Senate to get the rebuttal presumption language removed and local flexibility restored when considering these difficult decisions.  The bills are now before the Senate Judiciary Committee with action expected in September.

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