A California assemblyman is once again trying to curb expulsions and suspensions for what’s known as “willful defiance,” when kids act out or misbehave in class or during school activities.

Advocates who support the assemblyman want to shift the state’s discipline policies away from punitive practices and toward alternative approaches that keep students in school and get to the root of their misbehavior. The advocates were largely successful in the last legislative session, sponsoring five discipline bills that became law.

But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill introduced by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, a Democrat from Sacramento, that, as originally proposed, would have eliminated willful defiance as a reason for expulsion and out-of-school suspension. Statewide data show about 40 percent of all suspensions are in this catch-all category and that African American and Latino students are much more likely to be suspended for willful defiance than students from other ethnic backgrounds.

“The problem hasn’t changed,” said Les Spahnn, legislative director for Dickinson, who said that the assemblyman is looking at several different approaches to rewriting his bill in light of the governor’s veto and opposition by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA). “The question is how do you do it.”

Unlike last year, the advocates are now working closely with ACSA and CSBA to better define willful defiance and limit its use.

“We need to tighten what is grounds for a suspension,” said Sarah Omojola of Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono law office based in Los Angeles.

Omojola says when students misbehave, such as by wearing a hat in class when that is against school rules, they should be warned rather than suspended. Out-of-school suspensions in particular should be saved for students who seriously disrupt school classes or activities, or have ignored repeated warnings and their behavior can’t be addressed in any other way. Omojola would also like to see willful defiance eliminated as a reason for suspension for elementary school students.

Laura Preston, a lobbyist for ACSA, says when it comes to a real-life classroom situation, it’s not always so clear whether suspension is appropriate. If, for example, the hypothetical hat the student is wearing is related to gang clothing, “teachers can feel threatened and just want to get the kid out of the classroom,” she said. She supports the idea that kindergarten through third grade pupils should not be suspended for willful defiance, but is less sure about older elementary school students. However, she is very positive about Public Counsel’s efforts to include her group and CSBA in its attempts to form new legislation.

Brown also vetoed a bill carried by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that initially set a timetable for schools with the highest suspension rates to implement alternative disciplinary measures. ACSA had opposed that version of the bill.

Currently no legislation along those lines is being proposed, but supporters of Steinberg’s bill will be offering a webinar and one-day workshop in alternative discipline approaches, probably next September, to districts interested in lowering their expulsion and suspension rates.

“I’m pleased that they heard our concerns that you can’t just legislate without providing training to teachers and administrators,” Preston said.

However, ACSA and CSBA are not the only ones that advocates for change have to convince. When Brown vetoed both bills last year, he said that these disciplinary issues should be decided by local school boards, not the state.

Meanwhile, Public Counsel has moved forward with a toolkit for districts and schools that want to change their discipline policies. Although Public Counsel wants the state’s Education Code to reflect a new approach to discipline, the toolkit plus the training session for districts are non-legislative ways to influence school discipline policy, Omojola said.


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