Strict discipline academies

Schools address safety issues and educate "at risk" students.

In the fall of 2000, Jacob Guigear brought a 3-inch blade to Carman Ainsworth High School in Flint. For this infraction, he joined more than 1,200 students estimated by the Michigan Department of Education to have been expelled from state schools each year since lawmakers began mandating expulsions for violence in 1995.

Guigear, who had a long history of skipping school, told The Detroit News he's shaped up since his forced stay at Frontier Learning Center, a "strict discipline academy" (SDA) in Fenton.

"You could look at this as a sentence," Guigear, who now wears a uniform and is subjected to daily searches, told The News. "But I don't think I'll be skipping as much anymore after I get out of here. It's not worth the effort."

The strict discipline academy is a relatively new tool available to Michigan educators for dealing with students whose conduct threatens the safety of staff and other students in their schools. Established through legislation in 1999 as part of an ongoing effort to enhance and maintain safety in schools, strict discipline academies are public school academies chartered for the purpose of reforming "at-risk" students without endangering others. The academies provide traditional education courses in a controlled environment-requiring metal detector checks at the door, uniforms, and strict adherence to behavior policies.

As Michigan educators become more familiar with SDAs, it is likely the future will see one or more established in most of Michigan's intermediate school districts.

Though the law establishing SDAs is exclusive of Michigan's charter school law, SDAs are similar to charters in that they can be authorized by a local school board, an intermediate school board, the board of a community college, or the governing board of a state university. They are organized as a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors. Since they are public schools, they can have no religious affiliation.

The law requires that SDA charters be awarded on a "competitive basis" within the boundaries of their authorizing authority, taking into account the resources available, population served, and educational goals of competing proposed SDAs. They are subject to annual reviews by the state, which assesses the academy's mission statement, attendance statistics, dropout rate, test scores and financial stability.

The law also allows citizens wishing to create an SDA to organize a petition drive if the school board or other authorizing body rejects a proposal that qualifies in every other respect. In order to place a proposal to accept the SDA on a public ballot, citizens must obtain the signatures of at least 15 percent of those citizens living within a school district's boundaries who voted in the previous school election. If the ballot proposal then receives a majority of the votes in the election the SDA is authorized.

Within 10 days of issuing an SDA contract, the authorizing board must submit a copy and application to the state Board of Education and must adopt a resolution naming the members the SDAs board of directors. The contract must include a number of important items, including a statement of the educational goals of the SDA, how the board plans to hold the SDA accountable, and procedures and grounds for revoking the contract. As with any public school, SDA teachers must be state certified, except as otherwise provided by law.

As nonprofits, SDAs are exempt from taxation on their earnings and property, but may not levy property taxes. They may not charge tuition and must admit students according to a non-discrimination policy. Like any public school, SDAs receive per-pupil funding from the state for the number of students enrolled at the beginning of the school year. They do not serve juvenile criminals, but the state Family Independence Agency or another state agency can enroll a suitable pupil from a juvenile detention facility in an SDA, provided the agency bears financial responsibility for the student.

Some district administrators have been cool to the concept of opening a strict discipline academy for local students. In Garden City, for example, administrators last year studied and rejected a strict discipline academy. However, without the programs, expelled students are left with few choices. They can seek to continue their education through private tutoring or alternative education programs, if offered by their district.

"With zero-tolerance in Michigan, there is nothing for these expelled kids," Dan Sherman, vice-president of Educational Services, the private company that manages Frontier Learning Center, told The Detroit News. "Strict discipline academies want to get kids off the street and give them some benefits so they can get back into school."

Strict discipline academies provide a way for Michigan educators to deal constructively with the growing number of expelled students who might otherwise be left without any opportunity for academic achievement. Incorporating them into school districts' overall safety plans would provide a positive "last chance" for students who may present a danger to others.

While some opposition in local school districts will likely continue, the establishment of well run strict discipline academies will facilitate education for all of our students, make schools safer, and provide educational opportunities for some students who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.

Guy P. Dobbs, J.D., is an attorney and principal in the firm of Dobbs & Neidle, P.C. in Bingham Farms, Michigan, where his practice assists Michigan public schools including public school academies.