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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.”

–Calvin Coolidge

January 6, 2016 

How many of us remember our Michigan Civics classes in elementary school where we learned, “How a bill becomes law?”  I recall learning how the bill would (seemingly) move smoothly from one chamber to the next, and with polite debate, eventually land on the Governor’s desk for signature. 

Oh, so neat and clean, these bills becoming laws.  But like so many things we learned as children, that image is at odds with real political life today. 

How a Bill Becomes Law:


I certainly don’t recall that stick-figure, civics book explaining that the great American process of moving ideas into law involved paid political flacks or lobbyists greasing the skids to assure smooth sailing into law.  Neither do I recall reading about highly paid PR consultants creating pressure on local legislators back home, or big money flowing into campaign accounts as part of the process. Clearly, all of this and more is part of the process of how—today—a “bill truly becomes law.”

Yet, solid public policy—to take the germ of an idea and make it law—today, as then, requires a champion: One with grit, determination, patience, persistence, and political finesse. 

From Defeat to Victory 

Over a decade ago, after a child died in a school while being physically restrained, the State Board of Education—a state, constitutionally-established body with powers of “leadership and supervision” over all Michigan public education—took up the issue.  After months of community input and public hearings, it passed a policy on the uses of “Seclusion and Restraint” in Michigan Schools. 

The State Board champion who led the charge is a lifelong advocate for doing right by people—back then and now—Liz Bauer.  Politics prevented her from getting all that she wanted and that our children deserve.

Liz Bauer, former state school board member and lifelong advocate

Liz Bauer, former state school board member and lifelong advocate

The entrenched school lobby fought the policy saying it was “unnecessary” and violated “local control.”  Yet, many local school districts were ahead of the State Board and had their own policies that severely limited what many call a “barbaric” practice in their schools.  Others simply ignored the State Board “policy recommendation” and went their merry way…continuing to lock and tie up children. 


Dohn Hoyle Sally Burton Hoyle

A group of advocates, known as the “Howell Group,” ably led by Dohn Hoyle with ARC, met for decades at an ordinal meeting spot.  They had as their number one priority—going back decades—to eliminate this harmful practice.  Yet, the education lobby groups thwarted them at every turn. 

Years back—after serving as State Superintendent of Schools—I was approached by the Howell Group, originally to write a column to bring attention to this negative practice playing out in far too many schools.  I drew up a multi-pronged approach to “help a bill become law” that would eliminate this practice in Michigan schools. 

My plan required the power of parents, partner educators, and students—plus a legislative “champion.”  The advocates were willing.  But finding a champion with the will, passion, and ability to take on an entrenched interest group with resources (e.g. the education “lobby”) was more challenging.  Most of the advocates had the ear of Democrat legislators, but they were out of power. 

Wherefore Art thou, Champion?

On these very pages in 2013, I trolled for a “champion” to help us end this horrible and harmful “treatment option” still taking place in Michigan schools in the 21st century.  I found our champion in Lt. Governor  Brian Calley (see: Locked Up And Left Alone At School http://domemagazine.com/tomwatkins/tw062813)

When I informed the Lt. Governor that Michigan school children were being secluded and restrained (a practice more regulated in Michigan prisons than in schools and, if done by a parent, could trigger a visit by Protective Services), he was aghast.  More importantly, he vowed to take action to better regulate—if not outright ban—this practice being inflicted on children.

Champions do Prevail

Lt. Gov. Calley methodically studied the issue, formed a statewide special education task force, built bi-partisan coalitions, met continuously with “doubters” and “obstructionists”, sought compromise and helped push through a series of bills that significantly change how and when seclusion and restraint can be used in Michigan schools.  The bill establishes reporting requirements to assure more transparency when and if kids are locked or tied up at school.  

The nine-bill bipartisan package was sponsored by state Democratic Reps. Frank Liberati and Christine Greig of Farmington Hills, and Republicans Reps. Amanda Price of Park Township, Hank Vaupel of Fowlerville, Jim Tedder of Clarkston and Kurt Heise of Plymouth.

Then, on December 29, 2016 at an Inclusion Rally held in Troy, Michigan, the “Bills Became Law!”  The uses of non-emergency seclusion and restraint are no longer allowed in Michigan schools.  Schools must now report to the Michigan Department of Education on a regular basis when this practice is used, and parents must be notified.

Are the bills perfect?  Of course not.  As is usual in the give and take of the legislative process, compromises were made, but the principal of human dignity was not compromised.  Most legislation is like Christmas morning: You seldom get everything you ask for.  Yet, even as these changes appear a small step in the legislative process, they are a HUGE leap forward for our children.

Calley’s active partner from the other side of the aisle—State Rep. Frank Liberati, D-Allen Park, and other champions including Senators Hertel, Knollenberg, Jones, Pavlov, Reps. Greig and Vaupel, along with nearly 300 statewide special education advocates joined in the celebration.  Parents literally cried, knowing that the practice involving seclusion and restraint that harmed their children would no longer be indiscriminately applied to another child.

The emcee for the Inclusion Rally was Frank Beckmann, the morning host for WJR radio, who helped educate the public and rally support to change the law.  Mr. Beckman has a niece with Downs Syndrome who has graced his life and he could not imagine her being mistreated in this way.

Political Promises

Earlier this year, Michael Squirewell met the Lt. Governor at a “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” Rally at the State Capitol, inviting him to see his consumer-run “Club House in Detroit.”  Brian Calley took him up on his invite.  Michael gave the Lt. Governor a pen set as a commemorative gift of his visit to the Club House.  Lt. Governor Calley told the crowd that he would use the pens they gave him to sign the anti-seclusion and restraint legislation—when passed—in their honor. 

Leadership matters: Lt Gov Brian Calley signing legislation ending nonemergency Seclusion and Restraint in Michigan Schools

Leadership matters: Lt Gov Brian Calley signing legislation ending nonemergency Seclusion and Restraint in Michigan Schools

Lt Gov Calley signed the Seclusion and Restraint Bill using Michael’s gift – a tribute to both men and the causes they care passionately about. Talk about a class act! http://domemagazine.com/tomwatkins/tw092316

The fight to end this barbaric practice, pushed by advocates and parents, is over. The voluntary State Board of Education policy—championed by Liz Bauer—involving appropriate usage of restraint and seclusion practices is now law.

Those who care about protecting children—assuring that all children receive a quality education—owe a debt of gratitude to pioneers in this effort: Liz Bauer, Dohn Hoyle, Elmer Cerano (P&A), Chris Hench (a parent formerly with JARC), Marcie Lynn Lipsitt (parent advocate extraordinaire), and especially Lt. Governor Brian Calley, for his determination and persistence in demonstrating “How a Bill Becomes Law!”

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan leading two departments of state government: Mental Health and Education. He is the President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (www.dwmha.com)
He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

January 5, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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