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 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
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 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
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT