Three key bills aimed at changing school discipline policies were approved in the state Assembly before the summer recess and will be ready for a final vote on the Senate floor when legislators return from their recess in August. But in the process, the bills have been softened to give districts more discretion to implement harsher punishments than the authors originally intended (see chart below).
The California School Boards Association (CSBA) and Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), representing constituencies that would have to administer the laws, had opposed all three bills in their original form, but have withdrawn their opposition to two of them.
Both groups still oppose Assembly Bill (AB) 2242, introduced by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), which, though amended, still retains some of its punch. The bill seeks to reduce the number of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions due to “willful defiance” or “disrupting school activities.” This loosely defined category now accounts for more than 40 percent of the suspensions statewide, according to Dickinson.
Before it was amended, the bill would have prevented administrators from giving students an off-campus suspension for being defiant or disruptive. As it currently stands, administrators would not be able to expel offending students or give them out-of-school suspensions for more than five days. (Students in some schools serve suspensions in special on-campus classrooms.)
Laura Faer of Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles that sponsored this bill, said from 8 percent to 12 percent of expulsions were done under this provision of the law. The state Department of Education reported a total of 18,649 expulsions in 2010-11.
Laura Preston, a lobbyist for ACSA, said she objected to AB 2242 because many districts, due to budget cuts, have eliminated the teacher who handled in-school suspensions. She is also concerned that administrators would no longer have the option to remove a student who has disrupted school activities.
CSBA and ACSA are now neutral on AB 1729, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). The bill would have required school officials to document alternatives to suspension they had implemented before the student was suspended.
The authors amended the bill so it now “authorizes” districts to use alternative methods and describes what some of those methods could be. The word “require” has been eliminated.
The two groups are also neutral on the current version of AB 2537, introduced by Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella). The original bill intended to give administrators discretion in whether to expel students except in the most severe cases, such as bringing a firearm or explosive to school. Under current law, administrators must immediately suspend and seek to expel students who bring a firearm, imitation firearm, or explosive to school, brandish a knife, sexually assault someone, or possess or sell a controlled substance.
The bill would soften current law slightly, giving administrators discretion in disciplining a student for possessing a controlled substance or an imitation firearm.
Either the Assembly or Senate Appropriations committees are considering three other bills, one of which is opposed by CSBA and ACSA.
Senate Bill 1235, introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), and two other senators, would require schools that have suspended more than 25 percent of their students – or a similar percentage of a numerically significant subgroup – to reduce that rate beginning in 2013–14. The bill was amended to clarify that the author was talking about off-campus suspensions.
The two organizations object to what they see as a mandate without any funding provided. The bill will be considered in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
ACSA’s Preston said she is not happy with any of the bills. “I do think we over-suspend and have these policies that are inflexible,” she said. “But I don’t think the bills piece well together.”
Preston also argues that no funds have been allocated in the legislation to train teachers and administrators in alternative approaches to discipline. “What good are changes in statutes if people aren’t trained?” she asked.
However, Public Counsel’s Faer believes the bills are a step forward in changing the “punitive” approach to discipline under current law. “If we want to reframe the dialogue and consider alternative ways to hold students accountable and keep our schools safe,” she said, start by changing the Education Code.