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New suspension data show drop in use of 'willful defiance,' but ethnic disparity remains


Willful Defiance_4

Click image to enlarge. EdSource graphic by John C. Osborn

Fewer students are being suspended for the controversial category of willful defiance, but African American students are still much more likely than their peers to be suspended for that reason, new data released Wednesday show.

The category of willful defiance of school authorities, which also includes disruption of school activities, accounted for 43 percent of all suspensions statewide in 2012-13, down from 48 percent the previous year. Altogether, schools issued 259,875 suspensions statewide for defiance in 2012-13, down 81,237 – or 24 percent – from the previous year, according to figures released by the California Department of Education.

Overall, suspensions and expulsions are down in California schools, the data show, yet willful defiance continues to be the top reason cited for student suspensions.

The highly subjective category has come under fire from advocates and lawmakers who say it is used disproportionately against Latino and African American students. African American students are 6 percent of the statewide enrollment, but accounted for 19 percent of all willful defiance suspensions in 2012-13, up slightly from 18 percent in 2011-12.

Latino students are only slightly over-represented. They comprise 53 percent of the population and accounted for 54 percent of the willful defiance suspensions in 2012-13 and 55 percent in 2011-12.

“It’s encouraging to see what appears to be some reductions in suspensions for willful defiance and a downward direction overall in suspensions and expulsions,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who is sponsoring Assembly Bill 420, which is focused on reducing the use of willful defiance as a reason for out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. “But it looks like the same disparity for African American students, and there are still lots of Latinos in absolute numbers who are suspended for this reason.”

The state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, banned the use of willful defiance in suspensions beginning this year, and San Francisco Unified is considering a similar measure.

Dickinson said he believes there is a “rising tide of awareness on this subject of suspensions and expulsions,” noting that the state has begun providing reliable willful defiance data over the past two years.

“The good news is we’re getting data now and are engaged in this subject in education circles all over the state,” he said. “This is a dramatic change from just a couple to three years ago when this was not a subject getting a lot of attention.”

“But,” he added, “I think we are still a long way to where we ultimately want and need to be.”

Willful Defiance3

Click image to enlarge. EdSource graphic by John C. Osborn

Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that has been advocating for changing state law regarding willful defiance, said that the data appear to be “a sign that some schools are starting to change the culture of harsh discipline.”

“Fewer California students suspended is great news for some students, but many others are still losing learning time to suspension and expulsion,” she said in an e-mail. “We want to see equal reductions throughout the state, and that is why state intervention is so critical. Your address should not determine if you will get fair treatment and a positive intervention instead of a pushout.”

And neither should your race or ethnicity, Faer said, referring to the disproportionate numbers of African American students suspended for willful defiance. “Discrimination has no place in our schools or in our school discipline policies.”

For the past two years, Asian students, who comprise about 9 percent of the population, accounted for only 2 percent of willful defiance suspensions. White students, who make up 26 percent of the state’s students, are also under-represented, comprising just 20 percent of willful defiance suspensions in both years.

Advocates for eliminating the “catch-all” category are the most concerned about students who miss school because of the suspensions. Of the total suspensions for willful defiance, 60 percent resulted in out-of-school suspensions. In-school suspensions allow students to remain on campus, where they can continue to do school work. Out-of-school suspensions, where students are barred from campus, contribute to students getting farther behind in school and in some cases getting into trouble because they are unsupervised during the day, advocates say.

The drop in willful defiance suspensions also contributed to an overall 14.1 percent drop in suspensions statewide from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the state numbers show. Expulsions dropped by 12.3 percent.

“Educators across California work hard to keep students in school and learning,” said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, in a statement. “It can be a challenge to find the balance between maintaining a safe learning environment and giving young people the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. But we’re working with schools and districts throughout the state to do exactly that.”

Willful defiance or disruption of school activities was by far the primary reason students were suspended, accounting for 341,112 suspensions statewide. The second most used category – of the 33 categories listed – was “caused, attempted, or threatened physical injury.” Statewide, more than 134,000 suspensions were listed in this category.

A previous EdSource analysis of 2011-12 suspension data in the state’s 30 largest districts found that Fontana Unified was the most likely to rely on willful defiance when suspending a student, using it 71 percent of the time. The latest data show that Fontana’s reliance on willful defiance dropped substantially – eight percentage points – to 63 percent in 2012-13.

Dawn Marmo, coordinator for Child Welfare and Attendance at Fontana, could not be reached for a comment Wednesday. But she had told EdSource earlier this school year that legislators’ focus on the suspect category had spurred her district into reviewing its approach to discipline.

“We’re working with the student and family to keep the student in school,” she said, using strategies such as parents shadowing their student to help keep behavior problems in check, conflict mediation and referrals to counseling.

Those strategies appear to be working. Only 8 percent of the suspensions for willful defiance in Fontana resulted in an out-of-school suspension in 2012-13.

San Juan Unified, the second most likely of the 30 largest districts to rely on willful defiance, did not show any change in the percentage of suspensions in that category: 69 percent.

Poway Unified remained well below the state average in 2012-13, with only 12 percent of its suspensions for willful defiance. San Francisco Unified kept steady and below the state average at 25 percent.

Los Angeles Unified, which was at the lower end of the spectrum among the 30 largest districts in 2011-12, dropped substantially lower, from 31 percent of suspensions for willful defiance in 2011-12 to 22 percent last year.

Referring to Los Angeles and its decision to rely more on restorative justice and other policies to discipline students over suspension, Faer said that “some of the biggest gains have come in places where schools have moved quickly to adopt alternatives to harsh discipline.”

Filed under: College Ready, High-Needs Students, Reforms

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7 Responses to “New suspension data show drop in use of 'willful defiance,' but ethnic disparity remains”

  1. Floyd Thursby said

    on January 30, 2014 at 3:48 am

    How is it discrimination if Asians are 2% of suspensions vs. 9% of the State? Could it be that African Americans argue with teachers, disobey direct orders, and fight more than others? Why are we not up in arms that boys are far more than 50% of suspensions, calling it sexist? If one race or gender misbehaves more than another, it is fair they get more suspensions.

  2. Louis Free said

    on January 30, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Why is the supposition that these policies target minorities when data after data shows that Asian-Americans are the least suspended group?

  3. Bruce William Smith said

    on January 30, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Quite correct, Floyd. A telling piece of data for me when I was working for the Los Angeles Unified School District was that, although African-American and, to a lesser extent, Latino students were more likely to be suspended than their proportion in the population would have led one to expect, they were exactly as likely to receive the same kind of treatment — that is, suspension or expulsion — regardless of the race of the administrator. That is, black administrators were just as likely to suspend or expel black pupils as white ones were. So unless one wanted to argue that black administrators were also racist against black students, the argument fell apart.
    But parents will continue, I hope, to be discriminating among the kinds of schools they want to send their children to; and the public authorities promulgating these policy shifts shouldn’t complain when they see the public abandoning highly permissive schools for ones whose orderly environments make learning easier.

    • Floyd Thursby replied

      on January 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      This is what is sad, even Matt Damon avoided the LAUSD schools for his kids after making commercials supporting public schools and his mother being a teacher. He was very embarassed about this. I think that being permissive towards bad behavior and language will not help black or Latino kids because if it causes those of means to avoid going to school with them, they lose an opportunity to learn by example, make contacts with affluent friends’ parents, etc. I am a big proponent of public schools, Brown v. Topeka, and integration, and I see being lax on misbehavior as causing more segregation. I can’t tell you how many white parents in liberal SF go to a school and exaggerate the negative, I heard kids mis-conjugating verbs, saying we was, cursing, wearing saggy pants, etc. Look, I spent a lot of my life the only white kid on black and Latino sports teams, as a child, and I know that these stories are exaggerated, but if they keep whites out of public schools or moving to white suburbs, they cause segregation. And in this case, it is a real threat to your child’s education if you let willful defiance slide. You have to make the schools safe and a good learning environment for all and have discipline to attract affluent parents and lead to integration.

      • Bruce William Smith replied

        on January 31, 2014 at 8:39 am

        Correct again. Yesterday I was at an event celebrating National School Choice Week in Los Angeles, and a highlight was the attendance of L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy. Some of his staff was there as well, and it seems pretty clear that their confidence is rising, that they think they are getting better and better at serving their students. This might leave them mystified at the declining enrolment in their district. But while they get better and better at serving a shrinking audience, they fail to see the people who aren’t there, the very large number of Angelenos and former Angelenos who have turned their backs on that district, and they have no strategy to draw those families back into Los Angeles, which has become a magnet for a Third World populace sorely needing educational services (and employment) but increasingly incapable of being served due to a shriveled tax base.

  4. el said

    on January 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

    I suspect there is a factor of physical intimidation as subconsciously felt by the administrator that occurs here as well – that for the same infraction, the further you go on the scale of large, powerful, male, dark, the more likely it is you’ll get suspended. How often are short blonde-haired girls suspended?

    This is not limited to educators.

    But all that aside, it’s not relevant. Educators need more and better tools to prevent suspendable offenses in the first place, and to deal with them in the most constructive possible way. I have yet to hear a story of how a suspension turned a kid around from bad to good. Instead of sending them home, surely we can manage some other supervised experience (perhaps at another location) that might actually be valuable.

  5. Floyd Thursby said

    on January 30, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I agree with you that if suspended, you should be supervised. I was suspended for fighting once in high school in 1988. I had to go to some classroom at a closed school, and about 15 kids from around the City were there, with a substitute or babysitter. We all did homework, were allowed to talk some, read, got a lunch break, but we had to be there. However, there is some danger in exposure. I was bored so I made friends with a guy in the Chinese Mafia, and he offered to take me to lunch, and drove through stop signs at 80 miles an hour. He claimed he could see peripherally and stop if someone was coming, but some of the intersections had no stop signs going the other way. I could have been killed. This guy was crazy, so crazy, I doubt he’s still alive, but I didn’t know that until we drove.

    We have to make sure good children who study hard don’t have their education damaged by bad children who want to take out their frustrations in a way which brings down those around them, for attention, amusement, etc. Kids must be taught to take the pain without damaging others and exacerbating it. We also have to be very afraid that middle class parents will avoid schools if misbehavior is tolerated, because among soft, upper class whites, many are very squeamish and snooty and will exaggerate minor incidents and tell other upper middle class whites how horrible things happen at said school, and it will cause that school to be segregated, like the public school in Matt Damon’s neighborhood he avoids for his kids even after being on TV saying he was for public schools for years. He blamed testing, but we all know the truth. California schools are more segregated than Texas or Mississippi schools, by far. Under 10% of whites go to a public school over 20% black and Latino combined, in a state which is over 50% black and Latino. We need to enforce rules strictly enough to attract well off white parents with options.

    A study showed there is no academic advantage to private school after adjusting for income, but I do believe it hurts minorities when whites avoid their schools. You need to make them comfortable. The decision Brown v. Topeka said in part, separate but equal makes you feel unequal. When black and Latino kids take a bus past a private 80% white school to their public 10% white school, they feel unequal. Allowing willfull defiance makes this problem worse. We need to get rich and poor, black, white, Asian and Latino, in school together, and try to convince everyone to act the way Asians do now, very few suspensions and 20+ hours a week studying.

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