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Since the mid-1990s, schools have increasingly turned to suspensions and the criminal courts to deal with problem students. Now, the pendulum is swinging the other way. When it comes to criminalizing student misbehavior, Texas has been among the most aggressive states. But even there, times are changing. Laura Isensee of member station KUHF reports.

LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: Just a few weeks into school, De'angelo Rollins got into a fight with a bully. It was at his new middle school in Bryan, Texas, about an hour and a half northwest of Houston. His mom, Marjorie Rollins Holman, says her shy son reported the bullying but the teacher didn't stop it. That scuffle landed her son in the principal's office and also in adult criminal court. The school police officer wrote the sixth-grader a ticket.

MARJORIE ROLLINS HOLMAN: 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. We couldn't believe that this was happening.

ISENSEE: This all happened back in 2010. Like Holman, parents across the country have been protesting such harsh discipline. Michael Harris is with the National Center for Youth Law in California. It ultimately took on Holman's case. He says momentum has also been building from many academic researchers.

MICHAEL HARRIS: 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.

ISENSEE: Studies do show zero tolerance doesn'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 the public interest law firm Texas Appleseed. Deputy director Deborah Fowler says they looked at data from the Bryan school district.

DEBORAH FOWLER: We saw some very big disparities that would be hard to explain outside of some concerns surrounding implicit bias and discrimination.

ISENSEE: Fowler says African-American students there were four times more likely to get a ticket for minor misbehavior than other students. Even federal officials now acknowledge racial discrimination in school discipline is real. Catherine Lhamon is with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Together with the Justice Department, it issued new guidelines for schools to rethink discipline.

CATHERINE LHAMON: We don't want schools to have to wait. We don't want schools to have to think about it. We want schools and districts to treat all of their students as valuable learners right now.

ISENSEE: More schools have been investigated for possible discriminatory discipline under the Obama administration. There are also more than 1,600 complaints, including one against the Bryan school district. Federal investigators will determine if there was any discrimination there. But it doesn't have to be intentional racism to count. Michael Harris with the National Center for Youth Law says that there's an implicit, even unconscious, bias in society that's also found in schools.

HARRIS: The overwhelming majority of people in the country associate white with good and black with bad. Because we have adopted these stereotypes - and it's all of us and 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.

ISENSEE: It's one more challenge for school administrators who now must reconsider what's a smart and fair way to discipline all students. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.

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