New law limits student discipline measure

September 28, 2014

Marina Middle School assistant principal Ginny Daws, second from left, runs with her students in San Francisco. Finding ways to connect to students, such as running with them, is the best way to solve any behavioral problems, Daws says. Students, from left, are Ivan Ortega, Sofia Sanchez, Daniela Garcia, Jessica Perez and Kaila Fernandez.

Fewer than 11,000 of California’s 6.2 million students will likely be affected each year by a new law that limits the use of “willful defiance” as a reason to expel or suspend students. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on the bill signifies a growing commitment on the part of the state to find more positive approaches to disciplining students.

Assembly Bill 420 – signed by Brown on Saturday – eliminates willful defiance or disruption of school activities as a reason to expel students. It also prevents administrators from using that reason to issue suspensions to K-3 students. The willful defiance category has come under fire because it has been disproportionately used statewide to discipline African-American students and, in some districts, Latino students. In 2012-13, African-Americans made up about 6 percent of total enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance.

“California is now the first state in the nation to take badly needed measures to curtail suspensions and expulsions for minor misbehavior in our schools,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill.

“Kids who have been suspended or expelled are two times more likely to drop out and five times more likely to turn to crime,” Dickinson said in a statement. “Rather than kicking students out of school, we need to keep young people in school on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system.”

For the past three years, legislators and advocates have focused on willful defiance, which accounted for almost half of suspensions. During that time, a few districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified, have eliminated the category for expulsions and suspensions, and other districts have relied less heavily on it. The most recent data from 2012-13 show that only 495 students statewide were expelled for willful defiance, accounting for 6 percent of all expulsions. But about 43 percent of all suspensions cited willful defiance, which has been interpreted broadly by some schools to include anything from not turning in homework to disrespecting a teacher and disrupting the class.

“California is now the first state in the nation to take badly needed measures to curtail suspensions and expulsions for minor misbehavior in our schools,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

Altogether, 10,190 K-3 students were “suspended from school” in 2012-13 as the result of a willful defiance incident, according to the California Department of Education. That year, districts issued 15,528 suspensions to K-3 students where willful defiance was the most serious offense – a larger number than the statewide student count because some students received more than one suspension. Under the new law, teachers can still send a misbehaving student to the principal’s office, but the principal cannot send the student home.

Brown had vetoed earlier bills – which were opposed by administrator and school board organizations – that would have limited suspensions for older students, saying that it was up to local districts to decide how to discipline students. The Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association supported this bill.

“We believe that prohibiting the suspension of students in K-3 for willful defiance is consistent with the intent of the Education Code,” said Laura Preston, a spokeswoman for the administrators association. She pointed to other parts of the code that only allow suspensions and expulsions for “hate violence” or for “harassment” beginning in grade 4.

In addition, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is now requiring training in positive discipline for new school principals and administrators.

Not all administrators are happy with the new law limiting the use of willful defiance, however.

“I don’t like anything that would inhibit my ability to do my job,” said Paul Meyers, superintendent of Standard Elementary School District in Bakersfield. “You save a group of kids who are over-suspended in certain areas, but now those rules affect all schools in the state.”

Meyers said he used to be a superintendent of a small rural district that might have a superintendent/principal, a secretary and six teachers, making it difficult to rely on other measures, such as having an administrator intervene, if a child is disrupting a class.

“If a kid comes to kindergarten and is making threats, cussing and flipping off the teacher, what can the teacher do? Restrain him and then put him back in class?” he asked. “They’re taking away a tool and not replacing it with anything.”

“I don’t like anything that would inhibit my ability to do my job,” said Paul Meyers, superintendent of Standard Elementary School District in Bakersfield. “You save a group of kids who are over-suspended in certain areas, but now those rules affect all schools in the state.”

Meyers said he agrees that willful defiance is a “catch-all” and that he can “understand the expulsion piece.”

“I can understand that it’s a management issue where superintendents need to look at their systems and how to better support kids who are acting up in class,” he said. “Any large district is not going to have a problem with this.”

Teachers and principals in San Francisco Unified are already adjusting to the new law because their district eliminated willful defiance as a reason to suspend or expel any student in grades K-12, beginning this school year.

“It works when the kids understand what they have done and how they have to change,” said Ginny Daws, assistant principal of Marina Middle School in San Francisco. “Punishment doesn’t really work.”

Matthew Hardy, communications director with United Educators of San Francisco, said so far things seem to be going well. But, he said, “teachers need training and support from administrators to make it work.”

Ginny Daws, assistant principal at Marina Middle School in San Francisco, uses positive disciplinary approaches in her school. She visits classrooms, sometimes randomly or if a teacher requests her help with discipline. If students are fooling around and not paying attention to the teacher, Daws said, she might stop the class and ask the students to sit in a circle. She will then talk with them about what she observed, explaining what the teacher is trying to do and pointing out how their behavior is making it difficult.

Courtesy of Ginny Daws

Trejor Barber, left, assistant principal Ginny Daws and Tyler Tukes run together.

“I do Atticus Finch,” said Daws, who taught English for 30 years before becoming an administrator. “I get the students to put themselves in the teacher’s shoes.”

“It works when the kids understand what they have done and how they have to change,” she said. “Punishment doesn’t really work.”

If the problem is a couple of students who are fidgeting and not paying attention, Daws will take them to her office. When they talk to her, she will “squirrel around” like they were doing. “How hard is it for you to talk to me?” she’ll ask them.

Daws makes it a point to know the names of each of the 800 students at her school, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. She also invites students to run with her after school along the marina toward the beaches and the bridge.

“Sometimes we’ll run four or five miles,” she said. “Other times we’ll run two miles and walk and talk and sometimes sit down for a few minutes.” They discuss little things like nail polish and Converse shoes and more important subjects, such as their families.

“You make that connection with kids,” Daws said, and instead of misbehaving when facing difficulties “they understand that they can come and talk with you.”

 

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