Advocates for changing punitive school discipline policies that are disproportionately affecting African American and Latino students can claim at least a partial victory at the end of this year’s legislative session, with five bills signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last month that raise awareness and pave the way for alternative approaches to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
However, the governor vetoed two of the strongest measures that potentially would have reduced the 700,000 suspensions given to students each year. In addition, some of the bills – including the two that were vetoed – had been softened during the give-and-take of the legislative process to give districts more options rather than requiring them to implement alternatives.
Although the five bills that became law affect fewer numbers of students, they are significant, said Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles that sponsored the legislation. “They will move California forward. They address critical pieces of the puzzle.”
Some of the stronger language in the original bills was opposed by organizations representing the administrators and school trustees who ultimately must implement school discipline policies – the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA). ACSA and CSBA representatives said they agreed that inflexible discipline policies should change, but feared that the bills would place too much of a burden on administrators and teachers in this era of budget cutbacks. They urged funding for more training in alternative disciplinary measures, rather than forcing top-down change through the education code.
The governor appeared to agree. In his veto messages for the two bills, he said that he preferred to leave the matter of student discipline to “local school boards and the citizens who elect them.”
The bills were introduced against the backdrop of a recent federal report showing that in nine out of California’s ten largest school districts, African American and Latino students are expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers.
Although in many ways ACSA and CSBA got what they wanted, the two organizations are working with advocates to move forward in putting together training sessions and encouraging alternative approaches.
“To me, one of the biggest benefits is that we got this conversation started, and that conversations are continuing and not just stopping,” said Erika Hoffman, a lobbyist for CSBA.
Sherman Garnett, director of youth services for the San Bernardino County Office of Education, said the new laws promoting a more positive approach toward student discipline will serve as “reminders” and “guidance” for principals and other administrators involved in correcting students.
“Principals get frustrated, tired – they want to send kids home,” said Garnett, who also served as a principal for 16 years. “These bills are a reminder that they need to be proactive and do what’s best for kids, not what’s best for adults.”
Although Faer considers getting five bills passed in one session “an extraordinary victory,” she said “at the same time we are very disappointed two of the bills were not signed into law.”
She was particularly disappointed the governor vetoed Senate Bill 1235, introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and two other senators. Originally, SB 1235 would have required districts that suspended more than 25 percent of their students – or a similar percentage of a numerically significant subgroup – to reduce that rate using alternative disciplinary approaches. The bill that passed instead encouraged such districts to implement evidence-based systems of positive behavioral interventions or other strategies designed to address the school climate. It also required the state superintendent of public instruction to invite those districts and their schools to attend regional forums to provide assistance and training in positive approaches to discipline.
The bill “does exactly what school administrators have been asking for – more training,” Faer said. California “could have taken on this issue and rolled out transformation in a very positive way.”
By the time Brown vetoed Assembly Bill (AB) 2242, introduced by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), it would have affected only about 2,500 students who are expelled each year for “willful defiance” or “disruptive behavior.” Originally, the bill would have prevented districts from not only expelling, but also giving out-of-school suspensions for these reasons. Altogether, about 300,000 students – more than 40 percent of all suspensions – are sent home from school for being defiant or disruptive each year, Faer said, with a disproportionate number of them being students of color, particularly African Americans. The term “willful defiance” is subject to misuse and misinterpretation, she said.
But Laura Preston, a lobbyist for ACSA, had opposed AB 2242, saying that although she agreed “willful defiance” has been overused, it is not a good idea to take away the ability of administrators to remove disruptive students before the principals and vice principals are trained in alternative approaches. These approaches can range from in-school suspensions so students don’t fall behind in classwork to restorative justice programs, which emphasize respect, empathy, and the importance of building relationships. Rather than focusing on punishment, the restorative justice approach asks how the person was harmed and what the offender can do to make it right.
The five bills that willl become law in January follow:
- SB 1088, introduced by Sen. Curren D. Price, Jr., D-Los Angeles, prohibits administrators from denying students admission to a school just because they have been involved in the juvenile justice system.
“Thousands of children have some sort of contact with the juvenile justice system,” Faer said. “If they are not allowed to return to school, that’s basically an off-the-record expulsion with no due process.” Faer pointed to a recent report to the Legislature by the California Department of Education. CDE found that of the 56,492 students served in juvenile detention by the state’s Neglected or Delinquent program, only 24 percent enrolled in their local district school within 30 calendar days after leaving the juvenile detention facility.
Disproportionality is an issue. African American and Latino youth comprised 81 percent of the total student enrollment in California’s juvenile court system during 2010-11.
- AB 1729, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), encourages districts to use alternative disciplinary methods and describes what some of those methods could be. Despite the lack of a mandate, Faer said that “for the first time in the education code there are actual alternatives listed that are evidence- and research-based.” The law also adds a section about documentation, authorizing administrators to document alternative methods used and place the documentation in the student’s record.
The requirement to document has always been in the law, said Garnett, referring to Education Code 48900.5. But, he said, AB 1729 makes the education code clearer and “reminds administrators that you have to document, document, document.”
- In California, there are only a few things a student can do, such as brandishing a knife or bringing a gun or explosive to school, that require an automatic expulsion. However, there is a second tier of offenses, ranging from possession of a knife or controlled substance to assault on a school employee, that currently give administrators discretion to expel a student. AB 2537, introduced by Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), clarifies the language and nudges administrators toward trying alternative measures. In addition, students no longer have to be expelled for possession of imitation firearms, such as a toy gun, or prescription or over-the-counter medicines, such as aspirin. Although administrators are expected to notify police if a student commits an unlawful act, AB 2537 changes the law so that they are no longer punished with an infraction and a fine if they do not do so.
Kelly Avants, spokesperson for Clovis Unified in Fresno County, said the new law will probably not change the outcome for students in her district, but it will likely modify procedures. For example, in the past, if a student brought a toy gun to school, administrators at the school would have to initiate an expulsion process. But, Avants said, at an expulsion hearing before the school board, the board would say if the gun was clearly a toy, the student should not be expelled. Now that AB 2537 has passed, administrators at the school could resolve the issue without requiring an expulsion hearing, she said.
- AB 2616, introduced by Assemblymember Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto), allows administrators discretion in determining whether a student has a valid excuse for being tardy, such as his or her parent’s car broke down. The bill also says that the first time a truancy report is issued, the student and his or her guardian may be required to meet with a school counselor or other school personnel to discuss the root causes of the problem and develop a plan to improve attendance rather than reporting the student to police.
“Truancy and suspensions go hand in hand,” Faer said. “This law moves us closer to an approach that focuses on parent and school partnership rather than police as the first approach.”
- AB 1909, introduced by Assemblymember Ammiano, aims to focus more attention on and provide more safeguards for foster children. It requires the agency that places a child in foster care to notify the education liaison of the child’s school district at the time of placement. It also requires the agency to invite the pupil’s attorney to any disciplinary hearing that may involve expulsion if the expulsion is not required by law.
When something goes wrong at school, children rely on their parents to support them, Faer said. Foster children, who often change homes, need to depend instead on social workers and their attorneys, who often know them the best. These advocates also have access to counseling and other wraparound services to support the child and keep him or her in school.
Faer intends to continue to push for the changes sought in the two vetoed bills. In the meantime, she is working with ACSA and others on joint trainings and connecting districts that are implementing alternative approaches with those who need help.
Although many districts throughout the state have already implemented the ideas encouraged by the new laws, some teachers, administrators, and parents are concerned that suspending fewer disruptive students will interfere with the education of other students. Faer argues that more positive methods encourage early intervention before students get out of control and support a change in culture at a school that emphasizes respect, responsibility for your actions, and fairness – something that will benefit all students.
Schools with the most suspensions have far lower rates of academic achievement, Faer added. “These schools are chaotic. All the children are harmed.”
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