San Francisco Unified is the latest district to consider eliminating “willful defiance” as a reason to suspend or expel students. Credit:

Suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” of school authorities may soon be forbidden at San Francisco Unified, which is considering a broad new discipline policy that focuses on restorative justice practices and other alternative measures.

The “Safe and Supportive Schools” policy would, among other things, require staff training on how to handle disruptive students and build a positive school climate. Administrators would be required to document alternative disciplinary measures they used prior to suspension, and the district would have to regularly analyze and publicize discipline data by school and provide an appeals process for students and parents.

San Francisco’s proposed policy, introduced by Commissioner Matt Haney and supported by the district’s teachers union, is unique in that it sets up special circumstances for disciplining African American students. The policy would require district approval before an administrator could send an African American student home for disciplinary reasons. The exception would be if the student commits a serious crime, such as having a weapon or selling drugs, which under state law requires immediate expulsion.

The provision is in response to district data showing that African Americans make up about 10 percent of the student body but account for more than half of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionality has persisted despite the efforts of the district to implement alternative disciplinary practices in about half of its schools, reducing overall suspensions by 30 percent over the past three years.

The resolution, first unveiled to the school board last week, will be discussed more fully at a special board meeting in January. It is similar to a disciplinary measure Los Angeles Unified implemented this year that included a ban of the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students deemed willfully defiant, which critics say is a subjective and “catch-all” category used to punish a variety of poor student behaviors. Efforts to implement alternative disciplinary measures – and to  eliminate the use of willful defiance – are gaining traction statewide as more districts consider the impacts of handing out suspensions, or what many call “unsupervised vacations” for students.

“We want to ensure schools are identifying supports for these students, that alternatives are in place,” Haney said. “It’s an additional level of accountability.”

Lionel Hill, the great uncle and caretaker of a second-grade African American student, welcomes such accountability. He took part in a rally of about 75 supporters of the proposed policy before the board meeting Dec. 10. The rally was organized by Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a San Francisco–based community organization that has played a major role in developing and building support for the proposal.

Although only 7, Hill’s nephew has been suspended several times. The first time he was a kindergartener who was having trouble adjusting to school and had a tantrum, Hill said.

It wasn’t until this year, Hill said, that the school put together an action plan as an alternative to suspension. The plan involves taking the boy out of the situation and letting him cool off should he throw another tantrum.

Sochitl Montano, 15, also attended the rally. The Balboa High School sophomore told EdSource that she and her friend were suspended in 7th grade for eating cupcakes they had found wrapped in plastic on the floor.

“We were hungry,” Montano said, “and no one was around.”

When they came to school the next day, they were told they were suspended – that the cupcakes were for another student’s birthday.

“I felt bad and would have liked to apologize to the girl, maybe make her some cupcakes,” Montano said. “But they wouldn’t tell me whose cupcakes they were. Nobody won. I missed out on a day of school, and she didn’t get any cupcakes.”

A lot of times, Montano said, students don’t realize the impact of their actions on other people. Restorative practices help them understand the damage they have done and make amends, she said.

Montano said she is lucky to have a supportive mother who is her advocate, but many students do not. When they are sent home from school, they hang out in the streets, she said. “They don’t show up for class anymore. They are discouraged. They feel they aren’t wanted at school.”

Susan Solomon, executive vice president of United Educators of San Francisco teachers union, spoke in support of the resolution at the board meeting. She told EdSource that the union has been involved in developing the proposal, which has “several references to training and professional development to address the issues of behavior in the classroom. In the absence of that, we would be much more measured in our response.”

Implementing restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions districtwide is expected to take at least three years and to require substantial funding. Haney said the cost will be determined as part of the budgeting process in the spring. He said schools that are suspending the most students, particularly schools disproportionately suspending African American students, would be the first to receive staff training under his proposal.

Kevine Boggess, director of civic engagement for Coleman Advocates, called the proposed policy “the first step in a longer fight.”

“We need to change the way schools operate,” he said, echoing the sentiment in the new school financing legislation that calls for parent and community involvement in school district decision making. “We want students, parents, community members and educators to take part.”

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Filed under: Equity issues, Featured, High School Completion, K-12 Reform, Race, Ethnicity, Reporting & Analysis, Students · Tags: , ,

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  1. Jeff Krause says:

    Defiant behavior in the classroom is clearly a problem. You can’t teach if students blatantly refuse to do as you ask. I agree that it doesn’t need to result in an out-of-school suspension, but there must be a consequence that other students see as serious and undesirable. Otherwise your credibility as a teacher is completely undermined. I’ve always liked the in-school suspension model if properly implemented.

    1. Paul Muench says:

      Completely agree that we need to protect teachers and other students interests. But I think the point is that we’ve tried the behavoirist solution and its not working. The challenge is to win over hearts and minds so that new actions are taken.

  2. Paul Muench says:

    After reading the new policy it seems to me that it would still allow for removal of disruptive students from the classroom. So the interests of teachers and other students should still be met. After that the issue is cost and purpose. I believe that studies of early childhood education have already shown benefits to long term life success. And getting along with others I think is a big part of that education. I don’t know if there is a direct studies for support of older children in schools, but I’m definitely willing to bet my tax dollars that school interventions will save money on prisons. And that’s just the bottom line. Helping to keep a child on track is just the right thing to do and I’m also willing to bet my tax dollars that we’ll reap the positive benefits for years to come.

  3. Paul says:

    “The program it sets forth is nonsense”, said O’Brien of Goldstein’s book, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

    As an African American, I find the race-based aspect of this policy insulting. What the “do-gooders” are really saying is that they believe that African Americans are not capable of meeting generally-applicable standards of conduct. Instead of doing the challenging work of correcting patterns of poor behavior, the authors of the policy are taking the easy way out by relaxing standards for one group.

    The “facts” in the long-winded preamble (fully one third of the text) don’t always distinguish in-school from out-of-school suspension.

    Still, the San Francisco policy at least acknowledges Ed. Code 48910, which provides for one- to two-day teacher-initiated in-school suspensions, on exactly the same grounds as for out-of-school suspension. Requiring that supervision, counseling and academic instruction be provided to students serving in-school suspensions is a step forward. I suspect that this provision clinched UESF’s support.

    The race-based element is, without any question, contrary to Proposition 209, which opens, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

    Also, it is unclear whether a public school district can limit a teacher’s authority under Ed. Code 48910. Only charter school boards are free to pass suspension/expulsion policies that differ from the ones in the Education Code. When fully implemented, the San Francisco policy will bar a teacher from issuing an in-school suspension on grounds of willful defiance alone, even though Sections 48910 and 48900(k) together allow such suspensions.

  4. P Bob says:

    Affirmative action for school discipline is what this is.

    Asian-American kids will get suspended for bumping into a teacher in the hallway. African-American kids will now get away with anything.

  5. Doug Lasken says:

    Mr. Heverly, are you sure you want to claim that legislators and school boards should not be criticized? Would it be willfully defiant to do so? I think you’ve got some major contradictions to deal with.

    1. Jerry Heverly says:

      OK, you have a point, but can you see that the SFUSD people are being pressured to do something by the legislature (i.e. the People’s elected representatives)?

      BTW I wrote a column on this subject last year:

  6. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says:

    One would hope that any large urban school district would look to its educator-practitioners and its parents for guidance on matters of policy concerning classroom disruption and student discipline.

    The notion of “the will of the People as expressed through their legislators” is a non-starter. That there were nine bills in the 2013 Legislature concerning some version of “restorative justice” in the public schools merely indicates what’s politically hot and what’s not. That’s about vote-seeking politicians and the Big Ed lobby in Sacramento — not regular kids who don’t act out, their hard-working teachers and their striving parents.

  7. Jerry Heverly says:

    There were nine bills in the state legislature last year seeking to mandate exactly what SFUSD is doing. A couple of them came very close to passing. It seems unfair to criticize this district for trying to follow the will of the People as expressed through their legislators.

  8. Doug Lasken says:

    Only a classroom teacher should be allowed to prescribe to other teachers “restorative justice” or some other re-packaged past practice as an alternative to suspension. No one has any idea what to do about disruptive students, of any ethnicity, so if someone stands up and claims to have a workable approach, it’s important that this person run a classroom in which that approach has been proven to be real and susceptible to imitation on a large scale- not just some ambitious ed-maven’s self-serving epiphany.

  9. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says:

    Great question, navigio. But the proposal certainly gets an “A” grade for political correctness.

    Beyond those two issues, the proposal sounds like it will require much more money to be spent on
    training and perhaps even hiring additional staff to implement the new requirements of
    “restorative justice.” No wonder the teachers’ union supports it. Is this where additional state
    funds from the tax increase and an improved economy will go?

  10. navigio says:

    is having different policies for different races even legal?

    1. Regis says:

      Navigio, it’s going to be legal soon. As mentioned in the thread below, with multiple bills pending for ‘restorative justice’. All it’s going to do, is put those same students at an even higher disadvantage when they get out of school, which statistically, is before they ever graduate.

      Oh, it’s highly PC, but in the ‘real world’, they’re going to find out, how bad the system REALLY failed them in accomodating their disruptive behavior. Then, they’ll just join the ranks of those on some kind of government dependence or the state penal system, which seems to be the ultimate destination. Let’s throw more money at it.