Bill restricting 'willful defiance' for suspending students moves ahead

With new data showing that more than half of all suspensions and a quarter of expulsions in California schools are for “willful defiance” of school authorities, the Assembly Education Committee voted 6-0 on Wednesday to move forward a bill that would restrict the use of the vague category by school administrators.

Roger Dickinson

Roger Dickinson

Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who introduced Assembly Bill 420, said that current law enumerates 23 other reasons why a student can be suspended or expelled, yet willful defiance has become a “catchall,” accounting for 53 percent of all suspensions. He called the new data to be officially released Friday by the California Department of Education “startling.”

Under AB 420, elementary school students (in grades K-5) could not be suspended for willful defiance. Middle and high school students could only be suspended for a third offense – and only if alternative means of discipline had been tried the first and second times.

Supporters of the legislation also point to the disproportionate numbers of African American students suspended for willful defiance. African Americans make up about 6.5 percent of the student body statewide, but account for 19 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Students who are suspended are much more likely to drop out of school and end up in the juvenile justice system, those who support the bill testified.

Dickinson said that the zero tolerance approach to discipline, instituted after the Columbine tragedy, was aimed at dangerous and physically threatening behavior. Since then, he said, it has “evolved in a way that has broadened its application.”

Kerry Callahan, principal of Pioneer High in Woodland Joint Unified School District in Yolo County, said since she became principal five years ago and instituted more positive disciplinary techniques, the climate and culture of the school has improved. Suspensions have been cut in half, attendance has grown by 5 percent, and the school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score has risen by 59 points.

Kerry Callahan

Kerry Callahan

She gave an example of when she was supervising during lunch and a girl threw an orange peel on the floor. When Callahan asked her to pick it up, the girl made a scene and replied with curses and other foul language.

“She was willfully defiant,” Callahan said. “I could have suspended her and sent her home. And I wanted to.”

But she instead brought the girl to her office. “I sat her down and asked her why she was so angry,” Callahan said. “I knew it wasn’t because of me. I found out she had just recently been abandoned by her mother.” Callahan talked to the girl about her situation, explained why her behavior was unacceptable, and made her the school office’s student assistant. The girl is now getting all A’s and B’s and is on track to graduate. She hasn’t had one discipline issue since then. “She wouldn’t have learned anything by being suspended,” Callahan said.

No one spoke against the bill, but spokespersons from the California Teachers Association (CTA), the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) all said they were not yet on board and were working with the bill’s sponsors to better define willful defiance.

“We need to define what it is and maybe what it isn’t,” said Erika Hoffman, a lobbyist with the school boards group.

Lynne Faulks, a lobbyist for the California Federation of Teachers, said her organization was originally opposed, but has found conversations with supporters very productive. “We were concerned about a teacher’s ability to remove disruptive students,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we want them suspended.”

Dickinson said the bill would not prevent teachers in the early grades from sending a child to the principal’s office if that student is disrupting the class. But in that case an administrator would need to try alternative approaches, such as Callahan did, rather than send the student home.

Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the administrators group, said her association’s members would like 5th graders to be included in the age group that could be suspended under AB 420.

Laura Faer, Public Counsel attorney

Laura Faer, Public Counsel attorney

These organizations have already won some compromises. The bill originally had allowed suspensions only for high school students. The bill also originally required that the earlier willful defiance incidents and the alternative discipline offered be “documented.” That requirement has been dropped.

Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles, said after the hearing that supporters recognize that some schools don’t have the capacity to document every disciplinary event. Public Counsel will continue to work to put data systems in place so that such documentation could be done simply by any school, she said. In the meantime, if AB 420 becomes law, parents will have the right to ask a school administrator what has been done to help their child if there is a recommendation to suspend. “Schools are going to need to show what disciplinary procedures are in place,” she said.

The bill, which will next go to the Appropriations Committee, has a long road ahead of it before it becomes law. Last year, a similar bill by Dickinson made it through the Assembly and Senate only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said that disciplinary practices should be determined by local schools and districts, not the state.


Filed under: College Readiness, High-Needs Students, Legislation, Reforms, State Education Policy

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10 Responses to “Bill restricting 'willful defiance' for suspending students moves ahead”

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  1. James P. Scanlan on Jun 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm06/28/2013 3:06 pm

    • 000

    Below are two articles explaining why the perception that relaxing discipline standards will tend to reduce disparities in discipline rates is the exact opposite of reality. The articles explain that reducing the frequency of any adverse outcome, while tending to reduce relative differences in avoiding the outcome, will tend to increase relative differences in experiencing the outcome, just as, for example, lowering a test cutoff will tend to reduce relative differences in pass rates but increase relative differences in failure rates.

    “Misunderstanding of Statistics Leads to Misguided Law Enforcement Policies,” Amstat News, Dec. 2012:

    “Racial Differences in School Discipline Rates,” The Recorder, June 22, 2012:

    Below is webpage explaining that a Los Angeles Unified School District School Wide Positive Behavior Support program (SWPBS) aimed at generally reducing discipline rates led to increased racial disparities in discipline rates.

    Below is a webpage describing data from a Department of Education equity report showing that racial differences in expulsions are greater overall than at schools with zero tolerance policies.

    But different types of measures may have different consequence. Increasing the number of instances of a certain type of misconduct required before a suspension is permitted and providing procedural safeguards against unjustified suspension, while reducing relative differences in rates of avoiding suspension, will tend increase relative differences in suspension rates. On the other hand, if defiance is a type of conducted that is exhibited (or perceived to be exhibited) to a greater disproportionate degree than other types of conduct deemed to warrant suspensions in a particular racial group, a limitation on suspensions for defiance could reduce both relative differences in avoiding suspension and relative differences in being suspended. But sometimes measures may increase disparities in suspension rates even more than one would expect on the basis of the described statistical pattern (as happened the case of the Los Angeles SWPBS program).

  2. Acooba on May 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm05/11/2013 5:38 pm

    • 000

    As a concerned parent, I applaud Assemblyman Dickinson and Principal Callahan. Thank you for having the compassion, wisdom and grace to fight for our children’s best interests.

  3. Vito on Apr 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm04/23/2013 5:20 pm

    • 000

    It’s time all the responsible parents of children band together to stop bills like AB 420. Teachers should have control of their classrooms and not be held to restrictions by bureaucrats in Sacramento who’ve never taught a class. One disruptive child can ruin the education of everyone else in the classroom.

    Bills like this usually slip by without anyone noticing but word is starting to get out of this anti-suspension movement with the parents. Politicians and school board members might want to rethink their stance on this issue if they want to keep their jobs.

  4. Vito on Apr 23, 2013 at 8:05 am04/23/2013 8:05 am

    • 000

    White kids are more likely to get suspended in CA than Asian-Americans yet no one cares about that disparity. Why not?


    • navigio on Apr 23, 2013 at 8:58 am04/23/2013 8:58 am

      • 000

      Actually, they do.

    • Susan Frey on Apr 23, 2013 at 10:15 am04/23/2013 10:15 am

      • 000

      The proponents of this legislation believe there are too many students being suspended for minor infractions, regardless of race or ethnicity. However, particularly troubling to them is the disproportionate percentage of African American students suspended compared with their percentage in the population. The newly released data show that African Americans are 6.5 percent of total enrollment, but make up 19 percent of suspensions. White students, on the other hand, make up 26 percent of total enrollment, but represent 20 percent of suspensions. The California Department of Education,, issued a press release about the new data citing these percentages.

      • Vito on Apr 23, 2013 at 4:38 pm04/23/2013 4:38 pm

        • 000

        I find it ironic that people who are about education don’t remember basic statistics and that correlation does not mean causation.

        Just because black students are suspended by a higher rate does not mean that teachers or he schools are biased. All the UCLA study showed was a disparity.

  5. Mr. CJ on Apr 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm04/18/2013 2:42 pm

    • 000

    “Kerry Callahan, principal of Pioneer High in Woodland Joint Unified School District in Yolo County…” stated that she could’ve suspended the student for, “… the girl made a scene and replied with curses and other foul language.”

    That’s not 48900(k), that’s 48900(i)Committed an obscene act or engaged in habitual profanity or vulgarity.

    The problem with this legislation is that administrators misuse the code, (k), as a catchall, when many times another, more cleanly defined section would fit.

    This is how administrators are trained and instructed. If folks would dig deeper, actually examine circumstances around many suspensions/expulsions they would find that (k) has been improperly applied.

    Just like the principal who publicly admitted she has no idea regarding the law.


    • Susan Frey on Apr 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm04/18/2013 3:35 pm

      • 000

      Although it is true that administrators rely too heavily on willful defiance for actions that could be covered under other sections of the education code, in the case mentioned in the story, the student did not commit an obscene act and was not habitual in her use of profanity. She in fact “willfully defied” the request from her principal.

      • Mr. CJ on Apr 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm04/18/2013 4:52 pm

        • 000

        “…and replied with curses and other foul language.”

        48900(i)Committed an obscene act or engaged in habitual profanity or vulgarity.

        I would guess that curses and other foul language would be profanity. Of course I admittedly was not there and they may have been Gypsy curses and words like mud, dirt, gross, etc.

        Perhaps there is no record of previous use of profanity, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a regular spewer of it.

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