Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's school discipline plan is overkill

By Ruben Navarrette
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: It's worth studying discipline but risky for the federal government to jump into the practices of local schools.
Ruben Navarrette: It's worth studying discipline but risky for the federal government to jump into the practices of local schools.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama administration has targeted "zero tolerance policies"
  • He says there is evidence that school discipline is meted out in discriminatory way
  • Putting two Cabinet departments on the issue is overkill, Navarrette says
  • Navarrette: Micromanaging our schools is a risk and could erode authority of teachers

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- When the worlds of federal bureaucracies and public schools collide, what results is often a teaching moment for all involved.

The Obama administration has unleashed two Cabinet departments to get tough on teachers and other school personnel who -- through so-called "zero tolerance" policies -- often refer disciplinary cases to police.

What concerns folks at the Justice and Education departments is that African-American and Latino students might be singled out for suspension and other forms of discipline, in ways that could amount to outright racial and ethnic discrimination.

Their proposed solution is called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which seeks to limit student suspensions and expulsions and provide "alternative best practices such as restorative justice, peer mediation and positive behavioral supports."

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The initiative was unveiled in 2011. But last week, the administration went so far as to lay out specific guidelines for states and even individual school districts. The administration will propose $50 million in grants to more than 1,000 schools to train teachers and staff in strategies aimed at improving student behavior and improving the climate of schools.

Upon hearing all this, memory takes me back to a junior high school in a small, largely Mexican and Mexican-American farming town in Central California, where I found myself, in the years after college, trying to support my writing habit by working as a substitute teacher.

I had a long-term assignment, about three months, teaching a "special education" course that was being misused as a dumping ground for rowdy and disruptive kids with behavioral problems. Almost all the kids in the class were Hispanic. The regular teacher, a 60-something woman with a kind disposition and white hair, was in poor health and on a prolonged absence.

One day, I was looking for a lesson plan in the teacher's desk and ran across some diary-like notes that the teacher had written -- probably in case she needed them someday. Her problem kid was an angry 13-year-old Hispanic young man named "Martin." They apparently had a running conflict, and, one day, the teacher had scribbled down in her notes: "Martin called me a white @#$%&, and said he was going to hurt me."

Welcome to the real world of public schools in America, which bears no resemblance to what they teach you at schools of education or university-run teacher credentialing programs.

When students such as Martin act up or get out of line, they have to be disciplined. They have to get in trouble, pay a price and be taught that they simply can't go through life disrupting their environment and threatening authority figures.

We can debate what the punishment should be, but there have to be consequences. No "if's," "and's" or "but's." It's for his own good. Let's say you give him a pass. What's going to happen the first time he's on the street and mouths off to a cop?

Also, note the part about how Martin allegedly called this nice, elderly woman "a white @#$%&." From my experience, that's also very common.

We'll hear advocates for students talk about how teachers sometimes harbor prejudices against students, and there is no doubt that this is true. But we don't hear much about what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Go into any inner-city high school in America, and you'll hear African-American and Hispanic students using racial slurs when talking about teachers and administrators. It goes with the territory.

This isn't to say that there isn't any discrimination in the doling out of school discipline, or that this isn't a subject worthy of more study. They might well be, and it certainly is. Yet, this initiative could also backfire on the administration by micromanaging our schools, undermining the authority of teachers and teaching African-American and Latino students to see themselves as victims. Besides, throwing two Cabinet departments at the problem is a serious case of overkill.

How is this for a new approach?

If we really want to help students who get in trouble, why don't we stop meddling in the schools and start dealing with those societal factors -- such as poverty, despair and broken homes -- that help these young people get into trouble in the first place?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT