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Fed Up With Zero Tolerance In Schools, Advocates Push For Change

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In 2010, De'angelo Rollins got into a fight with a bully at his new middle school in Bryan, Texas. His mother, Marjorie Rollins Holman, says her shy son reported the bullying, but the teacher didn't stop it.

Then it came to blows.

"The boy ended up hitting my son in the face first," Holman says. "My son hit him back, and they got in a little scuffle."

That scuffle landed her then-12-year-old son in the principal's office — and in adult criminal court after the school police officer wrote the sixth-grader a ticket.

"We end up paying for everything for our son and made sure he did everything the judge had passed down to him. But we were outraged," Holman says. "We couldn't believe that this was happening."

Since the mid-1990s, schools have increasingly disciplined students with harsh tactics like suspensions and, in some cases, the criminal courts. Now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction — even in Texas, one of the most aggressive states in criminalizing students' misbehavior.

The National Center for Youth Law in California ultimately took on De'angelo Rollins' case. Attorney Michael Harris says momentum has also been building from many academic researchers for a more positive approach.

"All this stuff that the people who sold us 'zero tolerance' said it was going to do, none of those things turned out to be correct," Harris says.

Studies show that zero-tolerance policies don't help students who are removed from the classroom, or the students who remain. What's more, multiple reports indicate schools punish black, Latino and disabled students more often and more harshly than others. Those students face a higher risk of falling behind or dropping out.

One study came from Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm. Deputy Director Deborah Fowler says the researchers looked at data from the Bryan school district.

"We saw some very big disparities that would be hard to explain outside of ... implicit bias and discrimination," Fowler says.

African-American students there were four times more likely to get a ticket for minor misbehavior than other students, Fowler says. Even federal officials now say that racial discrimination in school discipline is real.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, along with the Justice Department, has issued new guidelines for schools to rethink discipline.

"We don't want schools to have to wait. We don't want schools to have to think about it," says Catherine Lhamon at the Office for Civil Rights. "We want schools and districts to treat all of their students as valuable learners right now."

Under the Obama administration, more schools have been investigated for possible discriminatory discipline than under previous administrations. The Obama administration has initiated 25 investigations, as compared with just one under former President George W. Bush.

There are also more than 1,600 complaints, including one against the Bryan school district.

Federal investigators will determine whether there was any discrimination there, but it doesn't have to be intentional racism to count. Harris, the California attorney, says that there's an implicit, even unconscious bias in society that's also found in schools.

"The overwhelming majority of people in the country associate white with good, and black with bad," he says. "Because we have adopted these stereotypes — and it's all of us, it doesn't matter what race you are — our implicit bias comes into play without us even realizing that that's what's going on."

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