Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's school discipline plan is overkill

By Ruben Navarrette
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT