Student discipline must move beyond 'willful defiance,' educators say

July 1, 2013


California schools urgently need strategies for discipline that help children learn from mistakes, make reparations for harm and go on to succeed, a group of educators said last week in support of a bill that would dramatically change school discipline practices by banning the use of “willful defiance” in meting out expulsion and restricting its use in mandating suspension.

The educators made their case to the Senate Education Committee, which then voted 7-1 to pass Assembly Bill 420 and move the measure to the Senate floor. The bill would bar suspensions for the subjectively defined “willful defiance of school authorities” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, while middle and high school students could be suspended for willful defiance only for a third offense – and only if alternative means of discipline had been used for the previous offenses. No student at any grade level could be expelled for willful defiance.

The use of willful defiance as a cause for suspension and expulsion has become a flashpoint in the debate about how to manage school environments, particularly when students come to school with complex emotional issues stemming from poverty, violence and trauma. The term is listed as a cause in nearly half of the 700,000 suspensions given in California schools each year and in a quarter of expulsions. Disproportionate numbers of African American students are suspended from school, and students who are suspended even once in ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school as students who have not been suspended, according to studies. Dropouts are much more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, research has found.

“We know we need to change the direction we’ve taken historically,” Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, author of the bill, told Senate committee members. Describing a “broken” school discipline system statewide, he said that behavioral issues must be addressed with “alternative means of correction” to keep students “in school, on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system.”

In May, after impassioned public discussion, the Los Angeles Unified School District became the first district in the state to stop suspending students for willful defiance.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento

But proponents of the use of willful defiance say they need the flexibility to remove students from school if their behavior is unacceptable. Last year, a similar bill from Dickinson passed the state Legislature and was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The Association of California School Administrators last week voiced opposition to the bill unless amended, and the California Teachers Association has issued a “watch” position on the bill while it works on amendments with the author.

“While the idea of alternatives to suspension and expulsion is critical to us, we don’t want to tie the hands of school staff, at any grade level, to deal with what they have to deal with at a school site,” Seth Bramble, legislative advocate for the teachers’ group, told the Senate committee.

Opponents say that “zero tolerance” rules for misbehavior merely push troubled students onto the streets and fail to serve children who desperately need help.

“When I started as principal at Leataata Floyd Elementary School, we had a room that teachers and students called ‘the dungeon,’ where you were sent when you talked back to a teacher or wouldn’t do your homework,” Billy Aydlett, principal of the Sacramento-based school, told the committee. “I noticed two things right away: The students in ‘the dungeon’ received no instruction by their classroom teacher and were not held accountable for their schoolwork. And ‘the dungeon’ was full of black and brown boys.”

He added, “It’s easier to suspend than to love and develop a child who is hard to love.”

Karen Junker, a sixth grade math teacher and coordinator of the student climate and culture program at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, told the committee that the introduction of a “peer court” to handle some student behavior issues at the school had contributed to a drop from 365 student suspensions four years ago to 40 suspensions in 2012-13. The court provides a forum for peers and family members to talk with the student about the impact of the student’s misbehavior, appropriate restitution, and steps to help the student move forward to be successful at school, such as tutoring.

“People think that suspension diversion is soft on crime, but it’s tough love on crime,” Junker said.

As a result of the high number of suspensions, Junker said, Davidson had lost more than $35,000 in attendance-based school funding four years ago. This year she said the loss was $4,000. “We are saving tens of thousands of dollars a year, test scores are up, attendance is up, and we’re closing the achievement gap,” Junker said.

Many California schools have already adopted alternative approaches to student discipline, including the more than 800 California schools that use an approach to student behavior called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), which includes a data system to track student behavior and the explicit instruction of social and emotional skills such as listening, responding thoughtfully, and problem-solving. The largest study to date on the effectiveness of PBIS on child behavior found that well-structured, schoolwide implementation of the PBIS approach leads to “significant reductions in student suspensions and office discipline referrals.” The study was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and was published in November 2012 in the journal Pediatrics.

“You have to change the way people are thinking about discipline,” said Barbara Kelley, chief executive officer of the California Technical Assistance Center. “It’s a change from discipline as punishing to discipline as teaching.”


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