Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

A major legislative push is underway to reform California’s laws governing school discipline. A half dozen bills intended to do just that will be heard today in the state Senate and Assembly education committees.

The bills have been introduced against a backdrop of recent research that shows that African American and Latino students are disproportionately suspended or expelled. Some districts have introduced alternative approaches to school discipline and have reduced suspension rates, but these strategies have not been universally adopted. The flurry of bills is an attempt to make such practices part of California law, as well as to clarify aspects of school discipline policies.

In a sign that some reforms might emerge from this legislative session on the issue, two key school organizations are now supporting three of the measures they had previously opposed after the bills’ authors accepted a range of amendments.

The California School Boards Association (CSBA) and the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) are no longer opposing Assembly Bill (AB) 1729, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. The bill had required school officials to use suspensions as a last resort. Schools would have had to document alternatives to suspension they had implemented before the student was suspended, such as a restorative justice program or a “positive behavioral approach.” The purpose of such programs, the bill explains, would be to address the “root causes of the pupil’s specific misbehavior.”

With the amendments, the bill provides guidance to districts without imposing a mandate. It clarifies current law by describing alternative programs instead of simply stating that districts should use other means of correction.

In addition, the organizations have now dropped their opposition to AB 2537, introduced by Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, which clarifies which offenses require suspension and expulsion and when administrators can use discretion in using these disciplinary tools. For example, according to Erika Hoffman, a lobbyist for CSBA, there have been incidents of districts punishing students for bringing their prescription medicines or aspirin to school because they were classified as drugs. The bill would clarify that administrators would not have to suspend or expel students for that reason.

The two organizations have also lifted their opposition to Senate Bill (SB) 1088, introduced by Sen. Curren D. Price, Jr., D-Los Angeles. The bill clarifies existing law by prohibiting a school from denying enrollment or readmission to a student on the basis that the youth has had contact with the juvenile justice system. It also requires that school boards give expelled students more than one opportunity to demonstrate they have completed their rehabilitation plans in order to be readmitted to their regular school. As amended, the bill now only requires the board to give the student that extra opportunity if the student or his or her parents formally request a re-evaluation of the student’s readiness to return to school.

CSBA’s Hoffman said that one of the reasons her organization initially opposed the bills is that in her organization’s view most of the proposed laws established new requirements for districts but provided no additional funds to implement them.

Laura Faer of Public Counsel, a pro-bono law firm based in Los Angeles and the chief sponsor of several of the bills, took issue with the argument that implementing a more positive and supportive approach in disciplining students would be costly. She pointed out that schools receive funding from the state based on average daily attendance (ADA). If some of the changes encouraged by the legislation were implemented, she said, fewer students are likely to be absent, so the school would end up receiving more funding.

Schools need to create clear and consistent systems for implementing school discipline policies, Faer said, arguing that this is not the case in all districts. “Everybody needs to know what the rules are.”

In some cases, amendments have watered down the bills so that they provide guidance to districts in how to discipline students in place of mandates. Faer said she still supports these bills because they clarify the law and “reframe the dialogue about discipline.”

“The current education code around discipline is entirely about punishment,” Faer said. “If we want to think of alternative ways to hold students accountable and keep our schools safe, we have to reframe the dialogue in the code.”

However, CSBA and ACSA are still opposed to AB 2242, introduced by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

The bill takes on the largest single reason students are suspended — a loosely defined category known as “willful defiance.” More than 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 extended out-of-school suspension or from expelling them for willful defiance. Instead, students could be sent to a specially supervised classroom in the school or “other means of correction including community service during nonschool hours.”

Willful defiance “is overused, I’m not denying that,” the CSBA’s Hoffman said. But before eliminating the use of this “catch-all” category for out-of-school suspensions, she said, teachers need to be better trained in how to handle defiant students. “We would love to see that training provided, but the funding isn’t there to do that.”

“We want to work with the authors to chip away at these issues so we can develop a more appropriate and fair system,” she said. “But if we take out that definition (of willful defiance), we have to provide other alternatives.”

CSBA and ACSA also oppose SB 1235, introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, Sen. Price, and Sen. Michael J. Rubio, D-Bakersfield. The bill would require schools to address high rates of suspension. Initially the bill would only have applied to schools that suspended 25 percent or more of their students — about three times the state average — or a similar percentage of a numerically significant racial or ethnic group in a school. Schools would be expected to reduce that rate by at least 2 percent each year.

“The author sees it as a flexible program, but we don’t,” Hoffman said. The bill says schools have to implement at least one of three strategies. “Schools will be held to reducing the suspension rate by a certain percentage every year whether the strategy works or not. We read that as a mandate.”

In her letter to Steinberg in opposition to the bill, Hoffman wrote: “In a perfect world, schools would be able to find and develop programs and resources to establish programs that would proactively improve student behavior and increase school safety. However, this is not a perfect world, and the resources needed to establish the programs required by the legislation are not provided.”

However, despite ACSA’s and CSBA’s opposition to the Steinberg bill, a number of districts are supporting it, Faer said, including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, and Vallejo City Unified.

Laura Preston, an ACSA lobbyist, said that “very proactive” administrators and teachers are already implementing positive approaches to discipline. But doing so is very difficult because of the state’s budget crisis.

“Morale is down,” she said. “We’re losing administrators at a rapid pace. We need to provide training if we want to make comprehensive, systemic change.”

Susanna Cooper, spokesperson for Sen. Steinberg, said it was hard to know what impact opposition from CSBA and ACSA will have on the bill’s passage. “We’d like to see them support a bill (like Steinberg’s) that only impacts schools with excessive rates of suspension — those that suspend students at a rate that is more than three times the state average.” In general, she said, “there is overwhelming support for this legislation.”

One bill has enjoyed support from all sides from the outset. AB 2145, introduced by Assemblymembers Dickinson and Luis A. Alejo, D-Salinas, requires school districts to provide data on expulsions and suspensions broken down by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other student characteristics.

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