Second effort to limit 'willful defiance' as cause to expel and suspend

Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) is reintroducing his bill to limit the use of willfully defying authorities or disrupting school activities as a reason to suspend or expel students.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a different version of the bill, saying disciplinary practices should be left up to local school districts. The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) did not originally support the bill, though they later withdrew their opposition to the amended version that passed the Legislature.

Roger Dickinson

Roger Dickinson

Like its predecessor, the new bill attempts to restrain the use of willful defiance, a vaguely defined category under state law, which each year accounts for about 40 percent of the state’s suspensions – with disproportionate numbers of African American and Latino students suspended.

Assembly Bill 420 is similar to its earlier version, but it distinguishes between K-8 and high school students. The main points, according to Les Spahn, Dickinson’s legislative director, include:

  • Students could never be expelled for willful defiance, regardless of their grade level.
  • Suspending K-8 students for willful defiance or disruption of school activities would no longer be permitted.
  • For high school students, the first two times a student is willfully defiant, administrators would have to provide alternative, less punitive means of correction, such as restorative justice or positive discipline techniques.. (Students could also receive an in-school suspension during which they would do school work under the supervision of a teacher in a room separate from the classroom.) If the student were willfully defiant a third time, then he or she could be given an out-of-school suspension.

Dickinson and his staff have been trying to reach a compromise with the associations representing school board members and administrators. “We’re not yet singing Kumbaya,” Spahn reported.

Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the administrators’ group, said discussions are continuing. One area of contention is whether middle school and older elementary school students should be subject to suspension for willful defiance.

Sarah Omojola, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles, supports eliminating the category for K-8 students. “We are concerned that students who are having some issues are caught early and are identified for other services such as counseling,” she said. “Suspending them can exacerbate the problems.”

As for high school students, Dickinson is trying to avoid the possible negative consequences of suspension and expulsion, Spahn said, such as getting behind in their school work, feeling alienated from school, getting into trouble when they are left unsupervised in the community, and potentially dropping out.

Omojola said her organization is working with the associations representing school boards and administrators, the California Department of Education and The California Endowment, to develop regional trainings on these alternatives for schools and school districts that suspend and expel large numbers of their students. Last year a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that would have set up such trainings was vetoed by Brown. “We’re seeking non-legislative ways of doing the same thing,” Omojola said.

More training for teachers and administrators in alternative disciplinary measures is something that the associations have supported for a long time. “I am excited about upcoming professional development opportunities being developed,” Preston said. “A lot is happening behind the scenes.”

Meanwhile, Public Counsel recently created a toolkit for administrators and teachers who want to implement positive discipline techniques.

Note: The California Endowment is one of the funders of EdSource.



Filed under: Discipline, High-Needs Students, Hot Topics, Reforms

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11 Responses to “Second effort to limit 'willful defiance' as cause to expel and suspend”

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  1. Paul on Feb 23, 2013 at 2:10 am02/23/2013 2:10 am

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    el, your comment “I don’t think the intent is to leave those kids in the classroom to be disruptive, but to encourage schools to use in-school suspension” suggests that you’ve misunderstood the Education Code.

    Section 48900 contains a list of reasons why students may be suspended. With the exception of “willful defiance”, the reasons are very specific. Most are extreme: drugs, theft, sexual assault, etc.

    Section 48910(a) allows teachers to remove students from their classes (in-school suspension) for up to 2 days, for any of the reasons listed in 48900.

    Most misbehavior isn’t extreme enough to fall into any category other than “willful defiance”. Take away “willful defiance” and you take away teacher-initiated in-school suspension too.

  2. Susan Frey on Feb 21, 2013 at 11:38 am02/21/2013 11:38 am

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    EdSource did a survey of the discipline policies of 315 districts in California, with administrators in charge of their district’s discipline responding. Regarding the willful defiance category, 53 percent thought it useful, while 47 percent thought it was “open to misinterpretation and overuse.” To read the whole study or an executive summary, see below.


    • CarolineSF on Feb 22, 2013 at 6:57 am02/22/2013 6:57 am

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      Suspension and expulsion could be both useful AND open to misinterpretation and overuse. If EdSource gave an either/or choice (which the response appears to indicate), that could be seen as a fatally flawed survey.

  3. Jeff Randall on Feb 21, 2013 at 7:04 am02/21/2013 7:04 am

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    Dickinson shows that he has no experience in public education. A teacher and a school need the tool of suspension and expulsion- otherwise a school can descend into chaos, and you can’t teacher the kids who want to learn.

  4. Todd Groves on Feb 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm02/20/2013 1:39 pm

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    The bill has a just intent, yet the proposed solutions have a flimsy research base. As a society, we cannot continue to dispatch our most challenging students to the streets and expect an improved community. It is a national imperative that we find effective solutions for our most disenfranchised kids. However, results for restorative justice, positive discipline and similar programs -while promising- are anecdotal at best. This law will cause districts serving large African-American and Latino populations to redirect resources from teaching and learning into expensive, time-intensive programs with no evidence that they work at large scale. This could exacerbate the achievement gap.
    The research into alternative discipline programs often does not include the effect on academic achievement, choosing to focus simply on reduced numbers of REPORTED behavioral incidents. Returning disruptive to students to the classroom without changes in behavior will undermine education for entire classes. Rigorous data studies are needed to truly evaluate alternative discipline practices prior to enacting law that demands them.
    Willful student defiance poses a serious, increasing threat to the general education environment in urban schools. We must stop suspending and expelling our way out of the problem, but solutions cannot be the “wing-and-prayer” variety. Demand rigorous research before rushing to solutions.

  5. Sue on Feb 20, 2013 at 8:06 am02/20/2013 8:06 am

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    I’ve been an eighth grade teacher for 10 years. This article makes me sad and disheartened for our future. We continue to raise expectations higher and higher academically for our students, yet at the same time we lower expectations for the behavior of our students.

    Continually defiant children take away valuable instructional time from students who are present to learn.

    There is nothing wrong with teaching children to be respectful.


    • el on Feb 20, 2013 at 11:46 am02/20/2013 11:46 am

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      Regardless of the practicality of the particular legislation, I don’t think the intent is to leave those kids in the classroom to be disruptive, but to encourage schools to use in-school suspension and alternate placement/services within the school rather than just sending them home to play video games or roam the streets.

  6. Paul on Feb 20, 2013 at 2:29 am02/20/2013 2:29 am

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    It’s naive to assert that younger students don’t misbehave, just because they are younger.

    Maintaining the “willful defiance” category for middle school (Grades 6 through 8) is a no-brainer. Bad behavior is common at the level.

    It’s sometimes appropriate even in elementary school. I’ve witnessed dangerous behaviors as low as Grade 3 — I had a student bodily reverse (lift up and throw down) a desk. There is no Education Code section other than “willful defiance” that I could use to get such a student out of the classroom.

    I wonder how much time Roger Dickinson has spent teaching in urban public schools.

  7. Rich on Feb 19, 2013 at 4:39 pm02/19/2013 4:39 pm

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    Perhaps instead of outlawing suspensions, the bill should provide for and fund the specific alternatives that should be used in place of suspensions.


    • Eric Premack on Feb 20, 2013 at 11:36 am02/20/2013 11:36 am

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      It’s rather interesting to note that Legislative Counsel tagged the bill as a non-fiscal bill and as one that doesn’t constitute a state mandate. The legislature is becoming increasingly creative in its attempts to circumvent the constitutional mandate to reimburse school districts for extra state mandates. Here it appears that Dickinson plans to saddle school districts with the costs of running students through three rounds of documented process without providing the constitutionally-mandated funding to do the work.

  8. Greg Paulo on Feb 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm02/19/2013 12:42 pm

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    Assemblyman Dickinson is revisiting a proposal vetoed by Governor Brown last session. I believe Dickinson doesn’t undestand the degree “willful defiance” can reach. Students are getting progressively younger in demonstrating negative behavior. State funding cuts has killed many alternatives previously used, including his suggestion of placing a student in another classroom supervised by a teacher. I’d suggest he view another thought on school management provided by Dennis Prager in “A Speech Every American High School Principal Should Give”. We discipline behavior, not selected identified groups.

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