Agreement reached on ‘willful defiance’ bill

July 22, 2014

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After several months of negotiations, Gov. Jerry Brown and advocates for less punitive disciplinary policies have compromised on a bill that would limit schools’ ability to suspend or expel students for “willful defiance,” according to Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who is sponsoring the bill.

Under the new agreement, no student can be expelled for being willfully defiant or disruptive of school activities. That subjective category has come under fire because it has been disproportionately used statewide to discipline African-American students and, in some districts, Latino students. In addition, under the amended bill, administrators would no longer be able to suspend K-3 students and send them home for being willfully defiant.

The law will sunset on Dec. 31, 2018, when legislators will have a chance to revisit the issue.

“Advocates for change would very much like to go further,” Dickinson said, “but we realize the governor’s willingness to agree to take steps at all is a significant move.”

A bill that put more limits on the use of willful defiance passed the Assembly and Senate last year. But that bill was vetoed by the governor, who said he thought disciplinary decisions should be made by local administrators. Jim Evans, a spokesman for the governor, said Brown declined to comment because the legislation is pending.

Although willful defiance accounted for less than 6 percent of expulsions statewide in 2012-13, 43 percent of all suspensions were for willful defiance. African-American students make up 6 percent of statewide enrollment, yet they comprised 19 percent of all willful defiant suspensions.

“It’s hard work, but it seems to be effective when you communicate to students that they are valued, that you want them in school, and that you want them to succeed,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

However, the suspension figures represent a drop from 2011-12, when 48 percent of suspensions were for willful defiance. In addition, some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified, have eliminated the category altogether.

Both within the state and nationally, the trend toward more positive disciplinary practices is very clear, Dickinson said. “As momentum continues to build, willful defiance will be eliminated over time,” he said.

Laura Faer of Public Counsel, a public interest law firm based in Los Angeles, said her group sees this agreement as a first step forward. She said she appreciates that “the governor is willing to walk with us on this” and sees the sunset clause as an invitation for more dialogue that will eventually lead to the elimination of willful defiance as a reason to suspend or expel.

“Students, parents, teachers and community members around the state are working passionately for this change,” Faer said. “Nobody’s giving up, nobody’s going away.”

Assembly Bill 420 is currently being rewritten to reflect the amendments and will be presented to the Senate when members return in August.

Both the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA), which had opposed more restrictive versions of the bill, say they will support AB 420 with the current amendments, according to Laura Preston, a legislative advocate for ACSA. Before eliminating the category, Preston has said, administrators and teachers need more time to implement more positive disciplinary measures, such as restorative justice, which requires students to make amends to those who were harmed by their actions. For example, if a student disrupts a class, that student might apologize to his classmates and stay after school to help the teacher prepare for the next day. ACSA had also pushed to allow administrators the option of sending suspended students home when they are in 4th grade or above.  

“No matter what someone’s overarching view is of using willful defiance to suspend or expel, everyone agrees we should be keeping 8- and 9-year-olds in school,” Dickinson said. “What lies behind the issue is making sure there is the kind of support structure in the school that gives teachers and administrators an alternative. Where schools and districts have invested in positive discipline and restorative justice, they are finding that they work and that it’s not a great big expensive undertaking.”

“That’s not to say this is easy,” he said. “It’s hard work, but it seems to be effective when you communicate to students that they are valued, that you want them in school, and that you want them to succeed.”



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