San Francisco considers eliminating ‘willful defiance’ as reason for suspensions

December 15, 2013

San Francisco Unified is the latest district to consider eliminating “willful defiance” as a reason to suspend or expel students. Credit:

Suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” of school authorities may soon be forbidden at San Francisco Unified, which is considering a broad new discipline policy that focuses on restorative justice practices and other alternative measures.

The “Safe and Supportive Schools” policy would, among other things, require staff training on how to handle disruptive students and build a positive school climate. Administrators would be required to document alternative disciplinary measures they used prior to suspension, and the district would have to regularly analyze and publicize discipline data by school and provide an appeals process for students and parents.

San Francisco’s proposed policy, introduced by Commissioner Matt Haney and supported by the district’s teachers union, is unique in that it sets up special circumstances for disciplining African American students. The policy would require district approval before an administrator could send an African American student home for disciplinary reasons. The exception would be if the student commits a serious crime, such as having a weapon or selling drugs, which under state law requires immediate expulsion.

The provision is in response to district data showing that African Americans make up about 10 percent of the student body but account for more than half of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionality has persisted despite the efforts of the district to implement alternative disciplinary practices in about half of its schools, reducing overall suspensions by 30 percent over the past three years.

The resolution, first unveiled to the school board last week, will be discussed more fully at a special board meeting in January. It is similar to a disciplinary measure Los Angeles Unified implemented this year that included a ban of the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students deemed willfully defiant, which critics say is a subjective and “catch-all” category used to punish a variety of poor student behaviors. Efforts to implement alternative disciplinary measures – and to  eliminate the use of willful defiance – are gaining traction statewide as more districts consider the impacts of handing out suspensions, or what many call “unsupervised vacations” for students.

“We want to ensure schools are identifying supports for these students, that alternatives are in place,” Haney said. “It’s an additional level of accountability.”

Lionel Hill, the great uncle and caretaker of a second-grade African American student, welcomes such accountability. He took part in a rally of about 75 supporters of the proposed policy before the board meeting Dec. 10. The rally was organized by Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a San Francisco–based community organization that has played a major role in developing and building support for the proposal.

Although only 7, Hill’s nephew has been suspended several times. The first time he was a kindergartner who was having trouble adjusting to school and had a tantrum, Hill said.

It wasn’t until this year, Hill said, that the school put together an action plan as an alternative to suspension. The plan involves taking the boy out of the situation and letting him cool off should he throw another tantrum.

Sochitl Montano, 15, also attended the rally. The Balboa High School sophomore told EdSource that she and her friend were suspended in 7th grade for eating cupcakes they had found wrapped in plastic on the floor.

“We were hungry,” Montano said, “and no one was around.”

When they came to school the next day, they were told they were suspended – that the cupcakes were for another student’s birthday.

“I felt bad and would have liked to apologize to the girl, maybe make her some cupcakes,” Montano said. “But they wouldn’t tell me whose cupcakes they were. Nobody won. I missed out on a day of school, and she didn’t get any cupcakes.”

A lot of times, Montano said, students don’t realize the impact of their actions on other people. Restorative practices help them understand the damage they have done and make amends, she said.

Montano said she is lucky to have a supportive mother who is her advocate, but many students do not. When they are sent home from school, they hang out in the streets, she said. “They don’t show up for class anymore. They are discouraged. They feel they aren’t wanted at school.”

Susan Solomon, executive vice president of United Educators of San Francisco teachers union, spoke in support of the resolution at the board meeting. She told EdSource that the union has been involved in developing the proposal, which has “several references to training and professional development to address the issues of behavior in the classroom. In the absence of that, we would be much more measured in our response.”

Implementing restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions districtwide is expected to take at least three years and to require substantial funding. Haney said the cost will be determined as part of the budgeting process in the spring. He said schools that are suspending the most students, particularly schools disproportionately suspending African American students, would be the first to receive staff training under his proposal.

Kevine Boggess, director of civic engagement for Coleman Advocates, called the proposed policy “the first step in a longer fight.”

“We need to change the way schools operate,” he said, echoing the sentiment in the new school financing legislation that calls for parent and community involvement in school district decision making. “We want students, parents, community members and educators to take part.”

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