Sarah Omojola

Sarah Omojola

All students can learn. That’s a simple but profound starting place for talking about changing school discipline policies. As a former teacher in New Orleans public schools, I am well aware of the difficulty of teaching students who have varying backgrounds, abilities and learning styles in an ever-changing school system, inundated with countless internal and external pressures.

However, research has shown that students are frequently suspended on grounds such as “willful defiance” for behavior that is often related to having a disability, being culturally different from teachers or administrators, or because they are still learning how to respect themselves and others.

Unlike suspension for safety reasons, suspending students for “willful defiance” is an unsound educational policy that ultimately results in students losing valuable educational time. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that high school suspension rates have risen dramatically in the past 30 years without actually improving school climates. Notably, the American Psychological Association found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have lower academic quality and school climate ratings.

This year Assemblymember Roger Dickinson has introduced AB 420, which would eliminate “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension in grades K-5, where students are in early stages of development and, therefore, should be kept in school to receive the education and services that they need instead of a fast track to the juvenile justice system. The bill leaves in place more than 20 other grounds for suspension. These small changes will go a long way to reducing suspensions and, therefore, the negative impact that suspensions have on students’ education and futures.

Already, educators across California are shifting the culture in their schools and districts by pioneering research-based approaches such as restorative justice, social-emotional learning and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). These approaches use different ways of holding students accountable, but all have proven results. Contrary to what many people believe, these strategies often cost little or nothing, can be funded with existing sources and increase achievement scores. As a former teacher in a school with a chaotic environment, I was frequently dealing with student misbehavior instead of teaching. Without the full support of the administration, I – in collaboration with teachers teaching the same grades and subject – made some headway with proactive, positive discipline practices in my classroom. But I know that it is much easier to teach in a school where there is a calm environment throughout and everyone is on the same page about how to help students struggling with behavior. For that reason and more, we at Public Counsel have created a free guide to accessing these alternatives, learning from other successful educators, and obtaining the training you need to implement them at your school.

These toolkits contain interviews with educators who are actively changing the culture and improving discipline practices in their schools. During one such interview, Sacramento elementary school Principal Billy Aydlett told me, “The traditional model says, ‘Throw kids out for refusing to listen to you.’ What I learned is that what our students need the most is not negative consequences and zero-tolerance policies. What our students need is absolutely consistent and urgent support around maintaining appropriate behavior.”

Through observations at various schools and conversations with educators and community organizations, we have seen that alternate discipline strategies focus on teaching appropriate behavior and accountability, thereby allowing classrooms and schools to run much more smoothly. A San Francisco elementary school teacher who experienced this kind of improvement firsthand said, “I have been teaching for 10 years, the last five of which have been here at Rosa Parks. This is our second year with Restorative Practices and the climate here is much better. There is a lot less screaming and fighting from the kids. I also see a lot fewer ‘frequent fliers,’ who usually are repeatedly referred to the office. Now we go through a restorative conference and that’s it. I think that the students feel like their voices are being heard so they are less angry and less likely to act out.”

A Restorative Practices trainer in Richmond told Public Counsel, “[In] addition to the sharp decrease in suspensions (53%), the change in overall school climate was palpable and observable. The year prior, you would not have wanted to walk through the halls during a class change. Students were jostling, bumping and running into each other and administrators were having a hard time clearing the halls.” Now students get to class on time and administrators report fewer behavior issues overall.

You can read interviews with these educators and many others at our website.

Schools that take this research-based approach and put an end to knee-jerk suspensions have experienced increases in student achievement in addition to improved school climate. James A. Garfield Senior High School in Los Angeles serves a population in which 90% of its students are eligible for free/reduced price meals. After adopting a school-wide positive behavioral interventions & supports approach, the school not only reduced suspensions from more than 600 down to just one, it also increased its score on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s measure of academic achievement.

These results are not isolated; for example, Pioneer High School in Woodland has experienced similar improvements, including consistent, significant API growth for the entire school and each subgroup. These California results have been borne out in statewide and national studies, which show that implementing alternative discipline practices also results in improved academic achievement, reduced dropout rates, higher teacher retention and a more positive school culture.

For schools and districts that are concerned about the cost of implementing such alternatives, each of the educators that we interviewed said that the costs were nominal or something that they could fund from existing sources. Principal Aydlett explained, “Anyone who says money is a factor or a barrier to implementing an alternative discipline practice doesn’t want to change.”

I challenge schools and districts struggling with student behavior and school climate to fix their discipline practices and policies, but this challenge comes with the promise of support for educators who want to embrace it. Instead of hoping and praying for solutions, schools and districts can adopt research-based alternatives and look for guidance in similar places across California that are already seeing results.

Visit to learn more, get access to resources and contact me for free technical assistance and support.


Sarah Omojola is statewide education advocate for Public Counsel Law Center, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. She is a former English teacher and co-founder of Stand Up For Each Other!, an organization that provides advocacy services for students facing disciplinary action in New Orleans. She now works with Public Counsel and Fix School Discipline on policy and advocacy relating to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.

Filed under: Commentary, Equity issues, Featured, High School Completion, K-12 Reform · Tags:

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  1. Maurice Gibson says:

    It’s a good thing we have APA doing research to discover things like “Notably, the American Psychological Association found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have lower academic quality and school climate ratings.” Imagine that… A school full of bad kids has a bad education rate… What else did they discover, the internet? Great job citing worthless information to back your atricle.
    The issue with discipline is schools is simple, the kids no longer fear the consequences. You can’t make them do anything anymore, so your only choice is to send them home. You want to fix discipline, put a pricetag on offenses! Like a ticket! When a kid is suspended put a fine on it say $50 per day. You want to see a parent get riled into action and make them do thier job real fast tell them that they owe a $500 fine for thier kid starting a fight at school! If you don’t pay your fines you don’t graduate!
    Now they are accountable and you haven’t hurt thier feelings, and you havent physically haven’t hurt them!

  2. Carl Cohn says:

    I’m intrigued as to why some advocacy and civil rights groups argue that we should raise the bar when it comes to kids of color and academics, but we should lower the bar when it comes to behavior…What parent wants their kid in the “low” behavior standards school?

    1. Skeptic says:

      “What parent wants their kid in the “low” behavior standards school?” … how long until charter schools start to use this tagline as a recruiting tool?

      1. navigio says:

        Surprised no one jumped on this comment. Skeptic is right though. Charters already use this line… and act accordingly.

  3. Gary Ravani says:

    In my 35 years of classroom experience I can honestly say I never had a student suspended for “willful defiance” unless, of course, they were willfully defiant.

  4. Please note Ms. Omojola has migrated from education to the law. That pretty much says it all.

    Furthermore, starting her commentary with a condescending truism annoys the reader and is
    irrelevant to what is actually a tremendous problem in the public schools of this country. We do not universally acknowledge the classroom as a sacred space; we have failed to agree upon what constitutes the “culture” of school in which “all students can learn;” we will not fund expensive alternatives; and so we reap the whirlwind.

  5. Vito says:

    Um, Asians fit perfectly in the social sciences definition of a minority. How many Asians are in power in government? How many Asian CEOs are there? You want me to go on?

      1. Vito says:

        Wow keep moving the goalposts on the term “minority”. First you say it’s based on power which I proved to you that Asians don’t have. And now since Asians have a high household income, that doesn’ make Asians a minority. So did LeBron James cease being a minority when he signed his first NBA deal?

        It’s so ironic that this discussions is about education since you clearly lack it. In California in the late 1800s it was not illegal to kill a Chinese person hence the term “not a Chinaman’s chance”. In California, Japanese-Americans had their property stolen from them by the government and locked up in internment camps simply because of their race. And you’re going to tell me Asians are not a minority.

        The only reason you are so adamant that they are not minorities is because they don’t fit in the “modern education system is bias against minorities” narrative that is pushed.

        1. navigio says:

          Vito, my point was that the term minority, like so many of our other political terms, has lost much of its ‘literal’ meaning because its come to mean different things in different contexts. An attempt to conflate or blur those distinctions is a common ‘argument’, but it does not give such stances any more meaning. (I’m actually confused why you brought it up as it’s not even used in the article, or in the report cited.)

          Anyway regarding your last sentence, thank you for finally understanding that different ‘statistical minorities’ can have wildly different social and economic realities within our society. This of course makes them unique, irrespective of what term we might want to use to make them the same.

  6. Vito says:

    Aren’t parents supposed to teach their kids to respect the authority of teachers?

  7. Vito says:

    Actually according to the dictionary, Asians are a minority.

    1. navigio says:

      Try a social sciences dictionary:

      A group distinguished by being on the margins of power, status or the allocation of resources within the society. ‘Visible minority’ refer to those racial or ethnic groups in a society which are marginal from the power and economic structure of society, not to those which are few in number. In South Africa, Blacks are the statistical majority but were for countless decades a social minority. Women can also be identified as a social minority group.

  8. Tiffany Mok says:

    AB420 is a great to way to make our schools better. Keeping kids in school results in high returns. It has a real economic impact on the health and safety of our communities in decreased crime and vandalism and increased chance that our young people will become wage earners. Society and the State of California will continue to pay higher costs in remedial education, clinical treatment, public assistance, and incarceration when we remove students from school as a savings measure.

  9. KS says:

    Excellent article! Highlights the need to teach what we preach — help students achieve, instead of kicking them out.

  10. Vito says:

    How do Asians manage to get suspended at lower rate than whites if these policies hurt minorities?

    1. navigio says:

      Didn’t you ask this once before? ‘Minority’ is a political/social, not ethnic or demographic term.