Rights activists have long-criticized the pervasive zero-tolerance approach to discipline, which mandates strict and inflexible punishment to public school students for committing major and minor offenses alike. The critics say the program contributes to the disproportionate - and unfair - punishments of black and Hispanic students, and creates a "school-to-prison" pipeline which ushers minority students from the public education system straight to to correctional facilities.

Today, the Obama administration joined the ranks of the outraged, urging teachers to end long-held no-tolerance discipline programs. According to the Associated Press, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the practice doles out punishments that hardly fit the crime: 

Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal's office.

Zero-tolerance policies were popularized in the 1990s and have been criticized many times since then. The practice encourages suspensions for small infractions and calling police to intervene in situations that could possibly be handled at school. These actions can build a student's criminal record, placing them within the criminal justice system for even minor infractions. According to a review published by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force in 2008, there is very little evidence suggesting that the harsh method works: 

Despite a 20-year-history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development. 

If anything, the zero-tolerance approach to education has served to highlight ugly prejudices. According to the AP, black and disabled students are unfairly targeted under the practice: 

In American schools, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, according to government civil rights data collection from 2011-2012. Although black students made up 15 percent of students in the data collection, they made up more than a third of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and more than a third of students expelled. More than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black, according to the data.

The administration emphasized in these recommendations that black students are given harsher punishments than white students for comparable infractions. And a spotty disciplinary record can lead to serious setbacks in adult life. NPR reports that 32 percent of students who are suspended drop out — double the rate of those who are never suspended. Nearly half of students who are suspended twice or more drop out, and students who drop out are more likely to end up entangled in the criminal justice system later in life. 

In the lengthy Department of Education recommendation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tells teachers to seek softer solutions for disciplinary problems:

I encourage America’s educators to proactively redesign discipline policies and practices to more effectively foster supportive and safe school climates. That is why today I am calling on state, district, and school leaders to reexamine school discipline in light of three guiding principles that are grounded in our work with wide variety of high-achieving and safe schools, emerging research, and consultation with experts in the field. 

The first principle includes taking "deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors," like training staff, engaging families, drawing on resources and working with students on underlying problems. The second is ensuring "that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior." The third is that "schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis." 

The ACLU tepidly welcomed the announcement, citing some shortcomings but lauding the move overall:

Though the guidance does not call for the elimination of law enforcement or school resource officers (SROs) in schools, it does provide important guiding principles for their proper role with respect to discipline. This includes improved training and a clear delineation of roles so that officers are not responsible for handling minor discipline. 

The administration's recommendations are non-binding, but will hopefully help eliminate some of the inequalities that keep our at-risk students at a disadvantage, by getting people to reconsider the idea of school discipline.