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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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The Obama administration says schools need to rethink their disciplinary policies because they're doing more harm than good. To deal with serious offenses like physical assaults or drug possession, many states and school districts developed zero tolerance policies. But the administration says those policies were being applied too often, even for small offenses. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The outcry over zero tolerance has been building for years. Civil rights groups in particular have argued that schools punish blacks, Latinos and kids with disabilities more often and more harshly, even for minor infractions. So, today, the U.S. Education and Justice Departments issued new voluntary guidelines.

DEBORAH FOWLER: What is great about what has been released today is that they give schools a variety of alternatives that have been proven successful.

SANCHEZ: Deborah Fowler is deputy director for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm that was part of a groundbreaking study that Fowler says meticulously documented how schools in Texas criminalize kids' misdeeds, no matter how small.

FOWLER: Chewing gum in class or talking too loudly or so many of the things that when I was a kid would've been handled with a trip to the principal's office in Texas and elsewhere.

SANCHEZ: The proposed guidelines require more training in classroom management and conflict resolution, clearer rules for faculty and security personnel in deciding what constitutes a major threat to school safety versus a kid simply acting out. Federal government figures show that of the three million students who were suspended or expelled during the 2010-2011 school year, a quarter of a million were referred to law enforcement, even though 95 percent were for non-violent behavior. The overwhelming majority, seven out of 10, were black, Latino and kids with disabilities. Civil rights advocates like Judith Browne Dianis, head of the Advancement Project, says the new guidelines will help reduce unnecessary suspensions and put school officials on notice.

JUDITH BROWNE DIANIS: No longer should districts look the other way or make excuses for racial profiling in school hallways and in classrooms.

SANCHEZ: School administrators and teachers groups welcome the recommendations but wondered where the money for new training and counseling programs would come from. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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