Against the backdrop of a recent federal report showing African American students being disproportionately suspended or expelled from California schools, a flurry of bills have been introduced in the state Legislature over the past several weeks to reform California’s laws governing school discipline.
The range of bills introduced reflect the complexity of the issue, and point to the already extensive set of statutes in the California Education Code governing suspensions and expulsion in California schools. While the statutes governing the most serious threats to school safety require school districts to institute expulsion proceedings, the education code also gives local school districts considerable discretion over how to respond to most other student behaviors and discipline problems.
The chief sponsor of several of the bills was the Public Counsel Law Center, the Los Angeles-based public interest law firm. Other sponsors were the ACLU of Northern California, the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California.
One bill, Senate Bill 1235, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would require, rather than encourage, schools to address high rates of suspension. Initially, the bill would only apply to schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students, or a similar percentage of a numerically significant racial or ethnic group in a school. Under Steinberg’s bill, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction would be required to publish a list of schools with elevated suspensions rates, as well as strategies that appear to be working in reducing those rates.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is the author of Assembly Bill 1729 requiring school officials to use suspension as a last resort. Schools would have to document alternatives to suspension they had attempted to implement before the student was suspended, such as a restorative justice program or a “positive behavioral approach.” The purpose would be to address the “root causes of the pupil’s specific misbehavior.”
Another bill, Assembly Bill 2242, authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, takes on the largest single reason students are suspended — a loosely defined category known as “willful defiance.” Over 40 percent of suspended students fell into this category during the 2010-11 school year, according to Dickinson. His bill would bar school districts from giving students an “out of school” suspension for “willful defiance.” Instead, students could be sent to a specially supervised classroom in the school to serve out their suspension.
In a lengthy statement, Dickinson explained the rationale for his legislation, including the following assertion:
Students who are subjected to out-of-school discipline not only lose important instructional time, they are far more likely to drop out of school and enter the juvenile delinquency system, at great cost to the state, than students whose problem behaviors are addressed proactively with research-based supports and interventions in school and with parents.
Assembly Bill 2145, also authored by Dickinson and Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, would require school districts to report data on expulsion and suspension broken down by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, student enrollment, and other student characteristics.
Assembly Bill 2537, by Assemblyman Manual Perez, D-Coachella, would give districts the option of reporting certain suspensions and expulsions to local law enforcement. It would also give them the option of recommending suspension and expulsion, instead of being required to do so under other legislation. The bill would also limit the reasons for mandatory expulsion to students who possess a firearm or an explosive on campus or at a school activity off school grounds.
To give expelled students additional opportunities to succeed in school, Senator Current Price, D-LA, has introduced a bill, Senate Bill 1088, which would bar a school from denying enrollment or readmission to a school if the student has had contact with the juvenile justice system. It would also require a school board to make an additional reevaluation if it denies readmission of an expelled student.