Photo by 'cybrarian77'

Photo by ‘cybrarian77’

One of the main reasons students are suspended from California schools is for “disrupting school activities” or “willfully defying” school authorities, which are largely undefined terms open to substantial interpretation, or misinterpretation, by school officials.

“Willful defiance” has proven to be among the most problematical of the lengthy list of behaviors subject to suspension or expulsion under state law. During the last school year, 42 percent of all suspensions in California were attributed to such behavior, as described in section 48900 (k) of the California Education Code.

The term is so troublesome that Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Youth Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development, wants to strip the “willful defiance” provision from state law as a reason students can receive an out-of-school suspension or be recommended for expulsion. In justifying the legislation he introduced two weeks ago (AB 2242), he asserted that:

Under this highly subjective category (willful defiance), students are sent home and denied valuable instruction time for anything from failing to turn in homework, not paying attention, or refusing to follow directions, take off a coat or hat, or swearing in class. They can also be potentially expelled from the district for such offenses.

Under his legislation, students punished for “willful defiance” could only be subjected to an “in-school suspension” in a special on-campus classroom, instead of being banished from campus.

New federal data issued this week showed that African American students disproportionately run afoul of school discipline policies. Although African Americans comprise only 18% of students, they make up 35% of first-time suspensions and 39% of expulsions. But the report issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights did not analyze the reasons students were disciplined.

The subjective nature of the “willful defiance” category contrasts with other sections of the state’s disciplinary code that describe specific behaviors subject to discipline, such as brandishing a knife, possessing drugs, or assaulting a school employee.

Instead, “willful defiance” can be defined in any number of ways depending on the district, according to Julia Mendoza of the ACLU of Northern California, which filed California Public Records Act requests recently to obtain disciplinary information from several districts.

In its handbook, Discipline in California Schools: Legal Requirements and Positive School Environments, the ACLU advises districts to define as clearly as possible what counts as “willful defiance” and communicate parameters for how educators should respond.

The ACLU argues that racial minorities are more likely to be suspended in vague behavioral categories like these, pointing out that “national research shows that students of color are disproportionately referred for offenses of defiance, disobedience, and disrespect.”

To some educators, it may be advantageous that the law does not spell out in too much detail every behavior that warrants suspension and expulsion. So-called “zero tolerance” laws, for example, have been criticized in some school districts for being too prescriptive and not giving school administrators enough flexibility in how to respond to a particular behavior or situation.

Some districts, such as Stockton Unified, are looking into the issue. Dee Alimbini, the district’s administrator for child welfare and attendance, says her district has set up a task force this year to reach consensus on what constitutes “willful defiance” so that it is not left up to individual administrators.

“A hard-nosed principal will write up a student where another principal wouldn’t,” she said. “That’s not fair. We’re trying to create a system that lives beyond me and the others involved.”

After the release of the national data showing the disproportionate disciplining of African American students, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommended that districts review their school discipline data.

“I encourage all local educational agencies to continue to collect and analyze their suspension and expulsion data to determine whether their current practices are meeting the needs of their students, keeping in mind that the objective is to keep as many students as possible in a learning environment,” he said in a statement.

“On some level, defiance and disruption are everyday activities,” said Michael Milliken, director of secondary education for Palo Alto Unified, a district with relatively few suspensions. In his district, 22 percent of the suspensions in 2009–10 were for disrupting school activities or willful defiance, about half of the statewide rate. “You have to pick your battles and try to keep it in perspective,” he said.

Details of Assembly Bill 2242: If enacted, the bill would change the “willful defiance” section of the California Education Code (Section 48900 k) from:

Disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.

to:

Intentionally engaged in harassment, threats, or intimidation, directed against school district personnel or pupils, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to have the actual and reasonably expected result of creating substantial disorder, and invading the rights of either school personnel or pupils by creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment.

However, under a new section of the education code (48911.3), students could still be punished for “willful defiance,” but only with an in-school suspension “in a supervised suspension classroom.”

Share Article

Comments (5)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. David Marasco 5 years ago5 years ago

    It is absurd to think that if students don't threaten or harass or intimidate they can't disrupt and bring a halt to the educational process in the classroom. As a high school teacher of 11 years, I watched students intentionally make noises to interrupt the speech of myself and other students. I've watched students purposely turn up sound devices to interrupt the class. I've watched students wander around the classroom and even dare to sit … Read More

    It is absurd to think that if students don’t threaten or harass or intimidate they can’t disrupt and bring a halt to the educational process in the classroom. As a high school teacher of 11 years, I watched students intentionally make noises to interrupt the speech of myself and other students. I’ve watched students purposely turn up sound devices to interrupt the class. I’ve watched students wander around the classroom and even dare to sit at my desk and rummage through it, daring me to call school security, which refuses to come because the administration does not want to lose ADA. I’ve watched students refuse to comply with seating charts. I’ve watched students walk out of the classroom or refuse to stay in class for the specified time. The three aforementioned offenses are relativity rare versus the real behavior problems at school. The person who drafted this bill has no experience with real world school misbehavior.

  2. Dr. Chris Hunt, University of Redlands 7 years ago7 years ago

    As a K-12 teacher of 15 years, principal for 20, and university school law professor for 10 I have to express opposition to AB 2242. This matter is already addressed in EC 48900.5, which specifies a student cannot be suspended for EC 48900k for a first offense and/or without efforts to remediate. When I visit schools I am shocked by the level of student defiance and disruption that has evolved over the past … Read More

    As a K-12 teacher of 15 years, principal for 20, and university school law professor for 10 I have to express opposition to AB 2242. This matter is already addressed in EC 48900.5, which specifies a student cannot be suspended for EC 48900k for a first offense and/or without efforts to remediate. When I visit schools I am shocked by the level of student defiance and disruption that has evolved over the past 10 years. AB 2242 is politically motivated, is not necessary because of Ed Code the authors clearly have not read, and will further tie the hands of teachers and administrators who are struggling with escalating student behavior issues.

  3. JS 7 years ago7 years ago

    If a student doesn’t intentionally harass, threaten, or intimidate teachers or pupils but otherwise engages in disruptive behavior, what would happen Dickinson’s bill? Would school staff be powerless to do anything to stop that? And what happens when behavior that would allow for “suspension” into another classroom (intentional harassment, threats, or intimidation, directed against school district personnel or pupils) continues into that classroom?

  4. rd5700 7 years ago7 years ago

    Let take this one step further and review the entire practice of short term suspensions. Children who misbehave should not be given a few days off from school. In the current format those who act up on campus get to stay home, watch TV, surf the web or wander the neighbor to get in more trouble. They should have to report to school at the normal time to a designated classroom. Once in that classroom they … Read More

    Let take this one step further and review the entire practice of short term suspensions. Children who misbehave should not be given a few days off from school. In the current format those who act up on campus get to stay home, watch TV, surf the web or wander the neighbor to get in more trouble.

    They should have to report to school at the normal time to a designated classroom. Once in that classroom they will sit for that entire school day. The only entertainment allowed would be to read from one of their classroom text books. No laptops, iPods, cell phones, sleeping or talking. The entire group in this special classroom would have lunch together and take regular restroom breaks at the same time. This doesn’t sound like a lot of fun but punishment isn’t supposed to be fun. Let’s do them a favor and teach them that unacceptable actions have unpleasant consequences. It’s better to teach that concept in school than have them learn it on the streets and in a prison system.

    Also since these students are reporting to school, ADA funds may apply which could pay for the babysitter who has to sit in the room with them.

  5. CarolineSF 7 years ago7 years ago

    What about the work on the impact of adverse childhood experiences led by San Francisco physician Nadine Burke? I found a good commentary by the estimable teacher-blogger John Thompson that summarizes it. Here Thompson is responding to a March 2011 New Yorker article about Burke’s work by Paul Tough (the full article isn’t available online, so I’m linking to Thompson’s description instead). Burke and Tough suggest an explanation of why this widely shared trauma has become … Read More

    What about the work on the impact of adverse childhood experiences led by San Francisco physician Nadine Burke? I found a good commentary by the estimable teacher-blogger John Thompson that summarizes it. Here Thompson is responding to a March 2011 New Yorker article about Burke’s work by Paul Tough (the full article isn’t available online, so I’m linking to Thompson’s description instead).

    Burke and Tough suggest an explanation of why this widely shared trauma has become so damaging in neighborhoods with intense concentrations of poverty. Adversity in early life can disrupt the brain circuits that are needed for literacy. Young students who have been traumatized often find it harder to sit still and follow directions. When a poor child who has endured trauma enters a neighborhood school class of thirty, he or she might join another nine who suffer from the same damage due to stress. Those survivors help “create in a classroom a culture of hitting, of fighting — not just for the ten kids but for all thirty.” In schools with so many suffering children, the “flight or fight” syndrome becomes a “cultural norm.” At-risk teens may over-react to confrontation. Or they might do the opposite and fail to recognize the risks that go along with being caught up in the school’s “drama.”
    Too many suffering kids then beat their own children and, again, it becomes a cultural norm where “it’s like, oh, black people beat our kids. That’s what we do.” [Note from Caroline: This is a quote from Dr. Burke, who is African-American.] Finally, the physiological effects of stress undermine immune systems, increase cardio-vascular disease, and cancer, as well as depression, further undermining the health of families further creating a downward cycle. Then, when our lack of an adequate health insurance system is thrown into the mix…

    It has been nearly five decades since liberals condemned Daniel Patrick Moynihan for “blaming the victim,” by articulating an admittedly crude theory of culture and poverty. The blame game remains as destructive as ever; the big difference is that today it is teachers who are demonized.

    Sometimes, I wonder whether it would better to take an attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” For instance, what if this post was written without mentioning race, class, family, alcohol, drugs, or depression? Even then, a cost benefit analysis of the damage done by stress would still be astounding. Even if we ignore all issues that could be remotely considered to be “blaming the victim,” we could still make a powerful case that turning up the stress on educators is not a good way of addressing the legacies of trauma.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-thompson/the-stress-of-talking-abo_b_839306.html