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Debate over the consequences of booting kids from school for misbehavior and the “school-to-prison pipeline” puts some educators on the defensive.

Some angrily demand to know exactly what those who criticize student suspensions and expulsions would do if they were teachers, principals or boards of education. How do you deal with disruptive or disrespectful students, all the while being held accountable for your students’ scores on standardized tests?

A civil rights initiative called The Advancement Project took on these sensitivities in July at an unprecedented national conference in Washington, D.C. called “We Can Do Better.” Parts were videotaped, and are now available online. The discussions offer insight that could prove useful for parents, educators and lawmakers concerned about both dropouts and incarceration rates in some communities.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was at the conference. She said her union is “moving away” from zero-tolerance discipline policies that result in removal of kids, and pushing for widespread training in proven alternatives that can resolve core problems while keeping students in school.

“Children are not going to be engaged in learning if they are not in classrooms,” Weingarten told journalists before the conference started.

Weingarten participated in a taped “town hall” session led by Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project.

During that session, Chief Judge Chandlee Johnson Kuhn of the Delaware Family Court talked about courts being inappropriately clogged with kids accused of “disorderly conduct,” for relatively minor offenses, including muttering profanities at school staff or other students. It makes no sense, she said, to pull kids out of school and send them to court to answer to allegations that mostly lead to counseling and other diversion programs.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, was on the same panel, offering his views on the proper role of school police.

As the Center for Public Integrity documented, students as young as six in low-income, ethnic minority neighborhoods have been ticketed by school police summoned to deal with students who have engaged in pushing matches. Police have been called into schools to respond to five-year-olds’ tantrums, and officers have ended up handcuffing children.

Emotional complaints about “racial profiling” of black students, especially, flowed throughout the Advancement Project conference. The event took place as jurors deliberated over a verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who shot African-American Florida teen Trayvon Martin to death in 2012. Zimmerman was acquitted.

Zimmerman — who frequently called police — dialed 911 that night to report that a “suspicious” teen was walking through his housing complex, and looked like he was “up to no good.” Using profanities, he told police, “they always get away,” as he pursued the youth.

Judith Browne Dianis told the Center that racial profiling remains a problems in many schools, but that some are grappling with cultural differences and how to set mutual expectations — and avoid treating black and Latino students with “suspicion.”

“We no longer treat them as innocent,” she said. “The black girl who rolled her neck must be insubordinate. So ‘get out of here.’”

If teachers build relationships with students, she said, it helps them discover what might be at the root of behavior problems. “If you don’t do it in the schools, it can set them up for life,” she said.

She said ethnic minority educators — and police officers — can sometimes judge students of color harshly, too; the problem is not confined to white educators or police.

University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist Phillip Attiba Goff, who advises police departments, gave a presentation at the conference on “implicit bias,” and how brains can become wired to judge children.

He explained research documenting how black kids on the edge of puberty, compared to white children, are often perceived as older than they really are, and less “innocent.”

The conference’s overriding message: Society damages itself when students are suspended for days as a result of behavior that in years past might have only required a trip to the principal’s office. Kids often fall further behind, and can end up dropping out, which drives up the risk of their getting involved in crime. Then society picks up the costs for incarceration.

But are there are alternatives to removing kids that don’t cost a lot to implement?

The Advancement Project’s website highlights changes in policies in Denver, Los Angeles and other locations. Ramiro Rubalcaba, an official from the L.A. Unified School District, spoke at the conference about how one of the toughest inner-city high schools changed its discipline policies.

Here’s a question-and-answer posted online that sums up how Los Angeles’ Garfield High School placed a moratorium on suspensions of students.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...