For 25 years, Michigan has had one of the harshest school disciplines in the country. For students like Erica Tomas Juarez who were expelled under this "zero tolerance" policy, navigating next steps were often a difficult path. In the summer of 2017, the law was changed, allowing for open dialogue and restorative practices to be implemented statewide, aiming to prevent stories like Juarez', and keep more kids in school.
From January 1, 1995 to August 1, 2017, the state of Michigan employed a “zero tolerance policy” in public schools. In the first year that the law was put in place, 240 students were expelled in Michigan. Zero tolerance is a policy that allows for an automatic expulsion under certain offenses, and has been found to disproportionately affect students of color. According to data from Grand Rapids Public Schools [GRPS], in the last four years students of color were expelled at higher rates than white students. I am one of those students. This is part of my story.
When I was a sixth grader at Burton Middle School, a student peer pressured me into lighting a piece of paper on fire with the lighter I had on me. I lit the piece of paper on fire, and, after realizing what I had done, I quickly put it out and threw it in the trash. The other student who pressured me to light the piece of paper on fire turned around and told the principal about what I had done. I was then questioned, and my body was searched by the school’s security guards when they found the lighter. I was told to go home. Two days after the incident, upon arriving at school, I had a meeting with the principal and was told I would be expelled.
Erica Tomas Juarez practices her writing skills at the Cook Library Center. An act of arson, as defined by the GRPS handbook, is the burning of a school building or burning on school grounds. I was expelled under the grounds of arson because I lit a piece of paper on fire, even though I didn’t cause any fire damage other than that to the paper. School discipline is such an unfair thing. School officials called the lighter a weapon. I felt like a criminal.I still cry thinking about it sometimes and carry that with me today.
That entire year, I was not allowed to go back to the school and be with the friends I had known for my entire life. When I was expelled, I did not receive any resources to assist me with my next step. My parents’ first language is not English, and with their limited English proficiency, it was even harder for me to know what to do next. Despite everything that had happened, my friends were constantly checking up on me to see how I was doing and holding up with my situation and asking when I would be able to come back to school. After I was expelled, I did not go to school for the remainder of sixth grade. The place I could always turn to was the Cook Library; there I felt like I could read and learn just like I was doing in school.
Sue Garza, Director of the Cook Library Center, has been a part of Erica's life since she was a student at Cesar Chavez Elementary School.
Had it not been for my willingness to share my story with Sue Garza, Director of the Cook Library, I wouldn’t have known that I had the opportunity to enroll at a different school. Garza helped set up a tour for me at Hope Academy, where I eventually enrolled in the sixth grade.
Up until August of this year, stories like mine were overwhelmingly acceptable throughout the state. Michigan had one of the harshest school discipline codes in the nation, according to Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center. The Student Advocacy Center, an organization located in Ypsilanti, Michigan works to provide educational services and advocacy for expelled or at risk students.
The change in Michigan law was made possible thanks to parents, advocates, organizers, and legislators. The new law, which went into effect August 1, states that school officials need to consider the student's age, disciplinary history, whether or not the student has a disability, seriousness of the violation, whether or not the violation threatened the safety of others, and whether a lesser intervention could address the student’s behavior—all of which help give a more comprehensive history to the student’s action or misbehavior. To help students and families navigate this new law, the Student Advocacy Center has created a seven factor worksheet to help in self-advocacy processes. If any public school district in the state of Michigan will be suspending or expelling a student for more than 10 days, according to the law, they need to be able to show in writing how the seven factors were considered in making the decision.
“It was a large cross section of people from a variety of sectors that made a difference. There were so many people from Peri Stone-Palmquist, Executive Director the Student Advocacy Center, organization that was key in making sure the zero tolerance policy was eliminated in the state of Michigan. different professions who were saying the same thing, and even legislators whose own children were being impacted negatively by the zero tolerance policy,” explains Stone-Palmquist.
Being expelled was a hard experience for me because I’d stay home, away from the learning environment and the people I had known my entire life. For me, being home was boring, without anything to do, and I often felt depressed. I just wanted so badly to go to school, even though I was not even allowed to be on school grounds for 180 days.
After finishing sixth grade at Hope Academy, I was able to go back to Burton Middle School and because of my age, I enrolled in the eighth grade. Now, I am a senior at Union High School. I am also enrolled in the TRIO program through my school, where I have gotten to know Mr. Tim Marroquin. Tim Marroquin serves as the Assistant Director for TRIO at Grand Valley State University. Mr. Marroquin is one of the best supporters I have to help me keep my confidence. He tells me all kinds of good advice to keep me very motivated in school, something that is hard for me to do after everything that has happened.
One of my dreams is to be able to be a barber because I love the way a new haircut can make someone feel and look good. I just love how barbers use their creativity to use different techniques and make designs on people’s scalps.
Despite how hard that experience was for me, I’ve learned some important lessons. Now, whenever my friends need anything or need to talk about their problems, they know that they can talk to me about anything and I can help them feel better or even give them a shoulder to cry on. They can talk things through with me, and they know that I will listen to them.
Erica also dreams of one day going to college and becoming a counselor so that she can help youth in her community. With the changes to the zero tolerance policy, students like me might have a chance to be heard.
Even before this statewide policy changed, GRPS sought to expand restorative practices. Per the GRPS handbook, restorative practices in the district aim to create an environment for conversation between the individual who was harmed and the one who harmed, listen and respond to the needs of both, encourage accountability and responsibility, reintegrate the harmer into the community, create a caring climate to support healthy communities, and change the system when it contributes to harm.
In 2016, former board of education member and now state representative David LaGrand was the instigator for the implementation of restorative practices at Grand Rapids Public Schools. At the time, these practices were piloted at three schools by partnering with the Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan.
Since then, restorative practices have been implemented at 31 out of 49 schools in the district, and a total of 5,200 students have participated.
The goal of these practices is to decrease the number of out of school suspensions, while helping foster a safe environment in the classroom, school and communities.
“Everyone in the system sees value in restorative practices. We are trying to make it a part of the way we do business,” shares Natasha Neal, Student Reform Supervisor at GRPS with Rapid Growth Media reporters.
However, despite the utilization of restorative practices, students of color continue to face disparity in suspension and expulsion. According to demographic data obtained from GRPS of the last four years, 60 out of the 70 students expelled were students of color.
"As a district when we see such a disproportionate numbers of students of color being affected we have to step back and check our practices and our training. We are committed to educating every child. We will continue to reduce the overall suspensions, and expulsions and better train our staff," explains John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications & External Affairs for GRPS.
According to the October 16 Board of Education Meeting Agenda, Sharron Pitts, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and General Counsel for GRPS, brought to the board’s attention the necessity to update the policy handbook based on the change of the zero tolerance law. According to the agenda, the handbook is supposed to be updated with inserts noting the change in law.
The 2017-2018 Grand Rapids Public Schools Student Policy Handbook still has yet to be updated to reflect the removal of Michigan’s zero tolerance policy, but does provide standards for restorative practices. Despite this transitionary period in which the new law is not technically "on the books," Helmholdt notes that all GRPS principals are currently operating under the new policy, and a rollout of the new rules is currently in process.
The critical next step is to ensure school districts are providing the necessary support, explains Stone-Palmqvist, so that educators are able to invest time to utilize restorative practices in the classroom.
“Educators are more stressed out. Demands and classroom sizes are bigger. When you are more stressed you are more likely to rely on bias and stereotypes. We need to be taking care of our educators, and provide the support to help them have these hard conversations around their own bias,” shares Stone-Palmquist.
Erica Tomas JuarezMy hope is that through this new change in law and the seven standards necessary prior to expulsion, students will be able to have chances that I did not have. I wish I had the chance to say that I never wanted to burn anything down. I wish I could have told someone I was peer pressured to burn that paper, and that my intention was never to cause anyone harm. I wish I could have said something, and that somebody would have listened.
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
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Photography by Dreams by Bella.