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Do Now

Do you think that schools, teachers and administrators should change the way they discipline because of the new report on zero tolerance and new suggested guidelines? How might they punish differently? Is this a good or a bad thing?


The Obama administration is urging schools to review their school discipline policies to ensure they are not overly zealous and comply with civil rights law. The policies in question are often called zero tolerance rules, which hand out swift and strong punishment to those who break rules in school, and sometimes result in court action. After Texas passed its zero tolerance policy for school disciplinary issues in 1995, many students began receiving criminal citations for missing class, fighting, cursing and even throwing paper airplanes.

High school student Diane Tran from Houston spent a day in jail in 2012 for contempt of court after being warned by a justice of the peace to stop skipping school.

“Well, the judge had warned me about missing too many days of school. But I just couldn’t help it,” said Tran.

When it came to light that Tran was a straight-A student who holds down two jobs in order to help support her younger sister and another sibling in college, the judge removed the citation from her record. However, many like her remain in the system.

The case sparked a new debate about the merits of criminalizing student behavior. Criminal charges can have lasting effects on students. Colleges and employers typically require students to report any criminal citations, and students who are referred to court just once are more likely to drop out of high school. However, many in the criminal justice stand by the policy. They say that the number of citations given to students are down in recent years, and that the cases that do make it to court are typically more serious than skipping school.


PBS NewsHour video Are some U.S. school discipline policies too punitive?
The Education and Justice Departments released new guidelines on school discipline, urging schools to ensure that punishments comply with civil rights laws. Hari Sreenivasan gets debate on the recommendations from Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowDiscipline

For more info on how to use Twitter, click here.

We encourage students to reply to other people’s tweets to foster more of a conversation. Also, if students tweet their personal opinions, ask them to support their ideas with links to interesting/credible articles online (adding a nice research component) or retweet other people’s ideas that they agree/disagree/find amusing. We also value student-produced media linked to their tweets like memes or more extensive blog posts to represent their ideas. Of course, do as you can… and any contribution is most welcomed.

More Resources

U.S. Department of Education website School Climate and Discipline
The U.S. Department of Education (ED), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), released on January 8th a school discipline guidance package that will assist states, districts and schools in developing solutions to enhance school climate, and improve school discipline policies and practices. While incidents of school violence have decreased overall, too many schools are still struggling to create positive, safe environments. The guidance package provides resources for creating such climates, which are essential for boosting student academic success and closing achievement gaps. The package also includes a video entitled U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Release School Discipline Guidance Package

WBUR radio segment Obama Admin Discourages ‘Zero-Tolerance’ School Discipline
“Historic” is the word civil rights organization Advancement Project is using to describe the Obama administration’s new guidelines, announced yesterday, to dial back so-called zero-tolerance policies.

New York Times post Admin Urges Restraint in Using Arrest or Expulsion to Discipline
The Obama administration issued guidelines on Wednesday that recommended public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses.

NPR All Things Considered segment Calif. Schools Try Out A Gentler Form Of Discipline
This segment produced by Youth Radio reports that getting expelled may sound extreme for a kid as young as twelve years of age. But the most recent show almost half of total expulsions statewide cited vague offenses, including “willfully defying the authority of school personnel” and “disruption of school activities.”

  • Ms. Hasty

    They hired police instead of counselors;

  • Maliha M

    I think it honestly depends on the school. BUt if we were to generally analyze school discipline policies then i think we can cut the students some slack. We can lower the absences by different ways other than locking up minors. it is obvious we’ve overreacted with some cases including Tran. Hopefully we can figure out an effective way to get around this, because right now were being very inconsiderate of students and their personal situations.

  • Abbie M.

    I believe that kids who are disruptive during class or use foul language in school are also the students who need the most guidance and who will benefit from the structure of the classroom environment in the long run. Disciplining a behavioral infraction with criminal consequences discourages students to trust the structure of the educational system. School is meant to be an environment of both academic and social learning and growth; disciplining students to a criminal extent (or using out of school suspensions excessively) does not present an opportunity for either. Obviously if a student is a threat to the safety of the school or other students, the school administration should work with school safety officers, counselors and parents to seek a solution to the problem. Most behavioral problems don’t just stem from students wanting to intentionally hurt people, but from some other source that should be sought out by the school administration in efforts to solve the problem from the root. All in all, students who are disciplined outside of school are generally those who would benefit most from the structure and guidance of the educational system.

    to read more on zero tolerance policies, check out this article:

  • davidjenny

    These laws are insane, they aren’t going to get the troublemaker students to settle down. In fact they will do the opposite they are going to enrage the law abiding students, as well. School is already stressful enough without the threat of going to jail. Though I do not disagree for disciplinary actions for violent acts in schools, I think it is unreasonable to get in legal trouble for using profane language or truancy at schools. That is using bulling tactics in order for students to comply, and its not ethical.

  • Brandon C

    The amount of discipline that should be applied really depends on the circumstances. If a student is skipping school out of spite, then perhaps a bit a prison is in order to create a more upstanding citizen. If it’s a case like Tran’s where she skips school to help her family, some consideration should be extended. Basically it seems unfair (and not economically savvy) to lock a hard worker in jail for working hard.

  • Nick M

    Introducing the criminal enforcement system into an academic setting is not remotely a good idea. Education is supposed to be a means of avoiding criminal activity (among several other reasons). Still, discipline is necessary to maintain order in schools. If suspension is necessary, it should be in-school suspension, not simply a vacation for the student away from school. And expulsion, as a last resort, needs to be just that: a last resort. Expulsion should only be used for the absolute most severe cases in which the student’s presence at school is a serious detriment to the other students. One possible solution is positive discipline, where, for example, “instead of ‘no fighting,’ use ‘settle conflicts appropriately.'” (From Discipline by Design: I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that going to jail for missing school is wrong.

  • iromano

    Trivial high school trouble should not follow a student through college and into their careers. Unless a student is involved in criminal activity (assault, drug abuse, etc), discipline should be handled in a progressive manner within the school. Instead of expelling, suspending, and imprisoning troubled youths, schools should do their best to help them; providing constructive punishment and counseling rather than pointless and ineffective legal punishments. Zero-tolerance policies are counterintuitive. They don’t discourage trouble, they merely make the trouble-makers angry.

  • Alex M

    Students should not be treated like criminals unless they actually do something criminal. Treating such simple things like swearing or throwing paper airplanes as criminal offenses is, quite frankly, stupid. Some things deserve harsher consequences, such as skipping class or fighting, but even these offenses don’t need to be considered criminal. Schools need to step up and take care of problems within; not outsource them and call them criminal offenses. Out of school suspensions, and especially jail time, don’t teach a student anything. It just makes them bitter and resentful. These kind of laws are illogical and entirely ineffective and need to be disposed of immediately.

  • Caroline P

    Schools with harsh guidelines for discipline need to loosen up. Using profanity and not attending school should not be handled though law enforcement, but should instead be handled within the school. Schools should hire police officers, and train principals to be able to appropriately handle actions of discipline. Using law enforcement and sending kids to jail for missing school or acting out in class is completely inappropriate. In order to punish properly, schools need to have trained officials instead of handing teenagers off to police officers.

  • Francesca Botto

    I think it is silly that high school infractions result in criminal offenses and jail time. This being said, I think that students who skips class or our use inappropriate language need a structure, and need other adults, such as counselors, to provide discipline. Students should not be charged with criminal misdemeanors unless they do something criminal. Frankly, we already have a problem we overly full jails, that throwing kids in for silly reasons is counterproductive.

  • Jae Hun

    I agree with the idea that students should be disciplined if they do wrong things, but I believe that it is wrong to discipline students for throwing an airplane or for swearing. There should be a limit when they discipline students and they are teens who have not grown fully yet.

  • Ms. Kawi

    As educators, I think it is important to implement rules, guidelines, and expectations for how students are to behave in class and on school property. It is equally important that students are treated with respect and fairness instead of judgment and prejudice. With that said, there is a fine line between setting rules and being reasonable, and punishing/criminalizing students for behaviors that can be handled or dealt with head-on (through communication, detention, and academic probation).

    At the school I teach at in Oakland, we are big on discipline, and behavioral and academic expectations. We hold our students to high standards and have policies that resemble zero tolerance and “no negotiations.” I think that it is important to provide structure that simulates the real world, but we should be empathetic to our youth so they do not over identify with being a bad kid or criminal.

  • Becca

    I agree that criminalizing students for minor behavior infractions is uncalled for and can be quite detrimental. However, attendance is a tricky one. Schools are also under pressure to make sure that their students attend as much as possible– not just to help students increase their scores on standardized tests, but also to comply with laws at the state level and to help keep their own stats up to par. There is always the fear that a number like low attendance percentages will affect future funding. People say that if the school is good enough, students will intrinsically want to attend, but it’s not always that simple. At our school some students just have chronic attendance issues. They do eventually get referred to the local court for truancy, but not before they have had multiple meetings with school authorities, home visits in some cases, and many many opportunities to explain their reasons and work with the school to come to a solution.

  • Trevon & Damion

    These policies are way too Severe, if someone decides to
    miss school for whatever reason it is okay to punish them. But, it is not okay
    to send them to jail for having unexcused absences. Especially if it is someone
    with acceptable grades that takes pride in his/her work.

  • glen young

    School’s must constantly walk a thin line separating potential harm from more common aspects of non-threatening adolescent behavior. That the line is sometimes blurred or misinterpreted is to be expected when the schools are managed on an industrial model rather than a human model.

  • Fire Serpent

    Students attend school to have a better future and meet their goals.This type of discipline can be very harsh and there can be a better solution on how to discipline the students.We all have our limits on discipline,and being sent to jail is not correct.If we concentrate on fearing of going to jail by skipping school,inappropriate language,or other immature things then we won’t be able to concentrate on our school work and we have to constantly look behind our back.Students can feel that their every move is being monitored,and we don’t need anyone breathing on our necks.

    This discipline is only acceptable if a student has been seen physically with weapons and drugs/alcohol.

    Counselors or advisers help students with their difficulties in life,and school,that’s why they are there.For a student to skip school,well it’s not acceptable,but don’t just send them off to jail! If they skip school,either the student has a good purpose or they don’t care for their education.That simple.

  • Kenny Moran

    i don’t want to say most because it would be a lot of schools. but a good 60% of the schools in the world are really strict. are school, and “its debatable” arnt to strict on somethings. granted the still need to fix some things but not much. there is a link below showing how strict some schools really are.

  • Ashton Walker

    I do not believe that school discipline policies are too strict at all. If someone breaks the rules, they deserve to be punished. If you get in trouble for skipping school too frequently, then you should be punished. But i don ‘t believe that having to go to court for it is anyway at all fair. The school should discipline their students themselves, the law should not have to get involved. If you constantly miss work, your employer isn’t going to call the police on you, instead you’ll be warned and if continued you’ll more than likely be fired. Now i’m not saying that schools should throw you out, but if you miss so many days of class you should not be allowed to pass and have to retake the class again.


Matthew Williams

Matthew Williams is a filmmaker and media educator who has recently transplanted to Oakland from Los Angeles. He believes that you are what you eat and feels everyone should have a multitude of dietary options for self-realization. Matthew is the Educational Technologist at KQED.

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