With new data showing that more than half of all suspensions and a quarter of expulsions in California schools are for “willful defiance” of school authorities, the Assembly Education Committee voted 6-0 on Wednesday to move forward a bill that would restrict the use of the vague category by school administrators.
Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who introduced Assembly Bill 420, said that current law enumerates 23 other reasons why a student can be suspended or expelled, yet willful defiance has become a “catchall,” accounting for 53 percent of all suspensions. He called the new data to be officially released Friday by the California Department of Education “startling.”
Under AB 420, elementary school students (in grades K-5) could not be suspended for willful defiance. Middle and high school students could only be suspended for a third offense – and only if alternative means of discipline had been tried the first and second times.
Supporters of the legislation also point to the disproportionate numbers of African American students suspended for willful defiance. African Americans make up about 6.5 percent of the student body statewide, but account for 19 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Students who are suspended are much more likely to drop out of school and end up in the juvenile justice system, those who support the bill testified.
Dickinson said that the zero tolerance approach to discipline, instituted after the Columbine tragedy, was aimed at dangerous and physically threatening behavior. Since then, he said, it has “evolved in a way that has broadened its application.”
Kerry Callahan, principal of Pioneer High in Woodland Joint Unified School District in Yolo County, said since she became principal five years ago and instituted more positive disciplinary techniques, the climate and culture of the school has improved. Suspensions have been cut in half, attendance has grown by 5 percent, and the school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score has risen by 59 points.
She gave an example of when she was supervising during lunch and a girl threw an orange peel on the floor. When Callahan asked her to pick it up, the girl made a scene and replied with curses and other foul language.
“She was willfully defiant,” Callahan said. “I could have suspended her and sent her home. And I wanted to.”
But she instead brought the girl to her office. “I sat her down and asked her why she was so angry,” Callahan said. “I knew it wasn’t because of me. I found out she had just recently been abandoned by her mother.” Callahan talked to the girl about her situation, explained why her behavior was unacceptable, and made her the school office’s student assistant. The girl is now getting all A’s and B’s and is on track to graduate. She hasn’t had one discipline issue since then. “She wouldn’t have learned anything by being suspended,” Callahan said.
No one spoke against the bill, but spokespersons from the California Teachers Association (CTA), the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) all said they were not yet on board and were working with the bill’s sponsors to better define willful defiance.
“We need to define what it is and maybe what it isn’t,” said Erika Hoffman, a lobbyist with the school boards group.
Lynne Faulks, a lobbyist for the California Federation of Teachers, said her organization was originally opposed, but has found conversations with supporters very productive. “We were concerned about a teacher’s ability to remove disruptive students,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we want them suspended.”
Dickinson said the bill would not prevent teachers in the early grades from sending a child to the principal’s office if that student is disrupting the class. But in that case an administrator would need to try alternative approaches, such as Callahan did, rather than send the student home.
Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the administrators group, said her association’s members would like 5th graders to be included in the age group that could be suspended under AB 420.
These organizations have already won some compromises. The bill originally had allowed suspensions only for high school students. The bill also originally required that the earlier willful defiance incidents and the alternative discipline offered be “documented.” That requirement has been dropped.
Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles, said after the hearing that supporters recognize that some schools don’t have the capacity to document every disciplinary event. Public Counsel will continue to work to put data systems in place so that such documentation could be done simply by any school, she said. In the meantime, if AB 420 becomes law, parents will have the right to ask a school administrator what has been done to help their child if there is a recommendation to suspend. “Schools are going to need to show what disciplinary procedures are in place,” she said.
The bill, which will next go to the Appropriations Committee, has a long road ahead of it before it becomes law. Last year, a similar bill by Dickinson made it through the Assembly and Senate only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said that disciplinary practices should be determined by local schools and districts, not the state.