Bill to change 'willful defiance' suspension practices is postponed

Roger Dickinson

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento

A legislator’s second attempt to change disciplinary practices in California schools, making it harder for administrators to expel and suspend disruptive students and eliminating the subjective category of “willful defiance” that accounts for nearly half of student suspensions statewide, has been postponed in order to hash out any remaining disagreements over the legislation.

Assembly Bill 420 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, which had been approved by the Assembly and the Senate Education committees, will be heard by the full Senate again in January, with any amendments.

Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said supporters will use the fall months to inform and educate schools and districts about alternatives to suspension. The California Endowment, a private health foundation that provides grants to community-based organizations, is offering free workshops about alternative means of correction, he said. At the same time, he added, supporters will continue to work with administrators and teachers who have concerns about the bill. Opponents have said the bill would eliminate a classroom management technique without providing additional training in alternate methods.

With the additional input, “When the bill becomes law, it will be effective on Day 1,” Dickinson said.

The bill attempts to create a new approach to discipline that recognizes that many students come to school with complex emotional issues stemming from poverty, violence and trauma. Sponsors of AB 420 see the bill as a civil rights issue because of the disproportionate number of African American students suspended for willful defiance. They point to the danger of sending students home, where they are often left unsupervised.

“When we are suspending children, it makes it more likely they can end up in the juvenile justice system,” said Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles and a sponsor of AB 420. “It’s time for a shift, and we want to make sure that everyone is on board.”

A similar bill by Dickinson passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown under the principle of “subsidiarity,” meaning that disciplinary decisions should be left up to local communities.

That principle should not be applied to AB 420, Dickinson said.

“We need a statewide policy when local discretion is being exercised that denies educational opportunities to students on a discriminatory basis,” he said.

In addition, he said, some districts are moving to “what I would call a more enlightened approach to discipline, while other districts are continuing to suspend 40 percent, 50 percent of their students. That creates a real disparity between schools and between districts.”

Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators, which opposed last year’s bill, said she was surprised that Dickinson had postponed the bill. She said her organization has been working with the sponsors to try to find amendments everyone can agree with.

Dickinson said the strongest reactions against his bill have come from members of the public.

“There is a sense of fear that if we can’t summarily exclude a student from the classroom or the school, that the disruptive students will somehow take over the school,” he said. “The real life experience is just the opposite. When discipline changes and suspensions and expulsions are reduced, academic achievement goes up.”

He pointed to Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles and Pioneer High School in Woodland. After alternative discipline practices were implemented, attendance and standardized test scores went up dramatically.

If passed in its current form, the bill would have:

  • Eliminated willful defiance as a reason to suspend or expel students;
  • Prevented superintendents and principals from expelling all students and from suspending K-5 pupils for disruptive activities;
  • Allowed superintendents and principals to suspend middle and high school students for such behavior only on or after the third offense in a school year and after other means to correct the behavior had been tried. Those other approaches include counseling, involving parents in the issue, and positive discipline and restorative justice techniques that expect students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends to anyone they might have harmed.

As written, the bill would not prevent a teacher at any grade level from sending a disruptive student to the principal’s office, however.

In addition, teachers and administrators “still have 23 other reasons why they can suspend or expel a student,” Dickinson said. “People have a misplaced notion that if this bill becomes law, the teacher or administrator will have lost all ability to discipline students. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

EdSource receives funding from The California Endowment to cover student health issues, but the organization has not control over editorial decisions.

Filed under: College Readiness, Legislation, Reforms, State Education Policy

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8 Responses to “Bill to change 'willful defiance' suspension practices is postponed”

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  1. Manuel on Sep 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm09/12/2013 1:47 pm

    • 000

    Mr. Cuellar, for the record, I ain’t white folk.

    I just took a look at the rate of suspensions of two high schools in Oakland as well as the Military Academy for 2011-12 (the most recent year for which reports exist). These three schools enrolled 4,465 students, approximately 30 percent of the 2012-13 enrollment of 12,405 high school students. Surely, these three schools should present numerical evidence of your claim.

    Skyline High reported a cumulative enrollment of 1883, 210 students suspended, 3 expelled, and 1,824 truant.

    Oakland Technical High reported 1,959 enrolled, 161 suspended, 4 expelled, and 1,759 truant.

    Military Academy reported 623 enrolled, 63 suspended, 3 expelled, and 0 truant.

    Of the three schools, only Technical High has a web site with faculty/staff photographs. Technical High seems to have a large proportion of teachers of color.

    Yet, you seem to believe that there is a conspiracy against students of color to target them and, presumably, to kick them out of school. From the raw numbers, it seems that there is a bigger problem with truancy than with suspensions.

    Given that in 2012-13 African American students are 38% of high schoolers at Oakland USD, it is not surprising that they are 42% of all suspensions. What about the other 58%? How many of them are Latinos? Is it higher than their % of the total, 40%? What about the other groups? I’d guessed that all groups are roughly equally represented in the numbers. From the numbers, though, it doesn’t seem that African American students have no more of a target on their back than other students at Oakland USD. Maybe you need to rethink your approach to this 10% suspension problem.

  2. Vito on Sep 12, 2013 at 8:43 am09/12/2013 8:43 am

    • 000


    Are you trying to say that teachers and administrators in Oakland are a bunch of closet right winger racists who have a secret agenda against black youths?

    Also if our school discipline policies are so cumbersome, how do Asian-Americans get suspended at a far less rate than whites?

  3. Sergio Cuellar on Sep 11, 2013 at 7:58 am09/11/2013 7:58 am

    • 000

    While folks here talk to the need of keeping this vague excuse to remove students from the classroom and to ultimately push them out of the school district, no one mentions that this “technique for classroom management” is also an approach that targets students of color.

    When you have African american males making up 18% of the student population in Oakland Unified and they make up 42% of all suspensions, with a majority using Willful Defiance as an excuse for removal and suspension, there is something flawed with this “Technique”

    Visit and learn more about restorative justice programs that were used to make the gains at the schools mentioned above. Having tools and new “techniques” to best educate all students is a best practice every school should be using.

  4. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm09/6/2013 4:06 pm

    • 000

    I like the Gov’s word, “subsidiarity,” and wish our legislators would honor it.
    A statewide law that tampers with what may and may not be done to assure
    a classroom environment is conducive to learning is gross legislative overreach.

    Effective disciplinary-system change that eliminates “willful defiance” as a cause
    for a student’s dismissal from class would require much more money, many more
    qualified school staff, more space within each school for alternative instruction,
    serious follow-through with families, more counseling. None of these are offered.

    I don’t hear a word about such necessary supports or about a template for teacher-training being
    established statewide. We just hear about politically correct actions to reduce student

  5. Susan Frey on Sep 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm09/6/2013 3:12 pm

    • 000

    According to data provided by Public Counsel:
    Pioneer High School cut suspensions by 65 percent between 2009-10 and 2010-11. The school also had an increase of 30 in average daily attendance between those two years, which meant increased income that year of about $97,000. Start-up costs of their positive discipline program, such as staff training, were $30,000 in 2009-10 and $40,000 in 2010-11. Although there are issues in comparing API scores across years because the components of the API change, Pioneer had an API score of 720 in 2010-11, a gain of 48 points from the previous year.

    Garfield Senior High School cut suspensions from 683 a year to one in 2010-11 after implementing the positive discipline approach. The school’s average daily attendance rose by 69, for a gain in income of more than $363,000 that year. The API score went from 632 in 2009-10 to 705 in 2010-11.

  6. CarolineSF on Sep 5, 2013 at 8:27 pm09/5/2013 8:27 pm

    • 000

    In many years of following education policy issues, I’ve come to learn that miraculous-sounding claims like this almost never (if ever) stand up to scrutiny. Can you please back it up with numbers AND any correlations or confounding factors? Such details should be included in the original reporting, to abide by journalistic best practices.

    “He pointed to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and Pioneer High School in Woodland. After alternative discipline practices were implemented, attendance and standardized test scores went up dramatically.”


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