New suspension data show drop in use of 'willful defiance,' but ethnic disparity remains

January 29, 2014
Willful Defiance_4

Click image to enlarge. EdSource graphic by John C. Osborn

Fewer students are being suspended for the controversial category of willful defiance, but African American students are still much more likely than their peers to be suspended for that reason, new data released Wednesday show.

The category of willful defiance of school authorities, which also includes disruption of school activities, accounted for 43 percent of all suspensions statewide in 2012-13, down from 48 percent the previous year. Altogether, schools issued 259,875 suspensions statewide for defiance in 2012-13, down 81,237 – or 24 percent – from the previous year, according to figures released by the California Department of Education.

Overall, suspensions and expulsions are down in California schools, the data show, yet willful defiance continues to be the top reason cited for student suspensions.

The highly subjective category has come under fire from advocates and lawmakers who say it is used disproportionately against Latino and African American students. African American students are 6 percent of the statewide enrollment, but accounted for 19 percent of all willful defiance suspensions in 2012-13, up slightly from 18 percent in 2011-12.

Latino students are only slightly over-represented. They comprise 53 percent of the population and accounted for 54 percent of the willful defiance suspensions in 2012-13 and 55 percent in 2011-12.

“It’s encouraging to see what appears to be some reductions in suspensions for willful defiance and a downward direction overall in suspensions and expulsions,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who is sponsoring Assembly Bill 420, which is focused on reducing the use of willful defiance as a reason for out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. “But it looks like the same disparity for African American students, and there are still lots of Latinos in absolute numbers who are suspended for this reason.”

The state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, banned the use of willful defiance in suspensions beginning this year, and San Francisco Unified is considering a similar measure.

Dickinson said he believes there is a “rising tide of awareness on this subject of suspensions and expulsions,” noting that the state has begun providing reliable willful defiance data over the past two years.

“The good news is we’re getting data now and are engaged in this subject in education circles all over the state,” he said. “This is a dramatic change from just a couple to three years ago when this was not a subject getting a lot of attention.”

“But,” he added, “I think we are still a long way to where we ultimately want and need to be.”

Click image to enlarge. EdSource graphic by John C. Osborn

Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that has been advocating for changing state law regarding willful defiance, said that the data appear to be “a sign that some schools are starting to change the culture of harsh discipline.”

“Fewer California students suspended is great news for some students, but many others are still losing learning time to suspension and expulsion,” she said in an e-mail. “We want to see equal reductions throughout the state, and that is why state intervention is so critical. Your address should not determine if you will get fair treatment and a positive intervention instead of a pushout.”

And neither should your race or ethnicity, Faer said, referring to the disproportionate numbers of African American students suspended for willful defiance. “Discrimination has no place in our schools or in our school discipline policies.”

For the past two years, Asian students, who comprise about 9 percent of the population, accounted for only 2 percent of willful defiance suspensions. White students, who make up 26 percent of the state’s students, are also under-represented, comprising just 20 percent of willful defiance suspensions in both years.

Advocates for eliminating the “catch-all” category are the most concerned about students who miss school because of the suspensions. Of the total suspensions for willful defiance, 60 percent resulted in out-of-school suspensions. In-school suspensions allow students to remain on campus, where they can continue to do school work. Out-of-school suspensions, where students are barred from campus, contribute to students getting farther behind in school and in some cases getting into trouble because they are unsupervised during the day, advocates say.

The drop in willful defiance suspensions also contributed to an overall 14.1 percent drop in suspensions statewide from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the state numbers show. Expulsions dropped by 12.3 percent.

“Educators across California work hard to keep students in school and learning,” said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, in a statement. “It can be a challenge to find the balance between maintaining a safe learning environment and giving young people the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. But we’re working with schools and districts throughout the state to do exactly that.”

Willful defiance or disruption of school activities was by far the primary reason students were suspended, accounting for 341,112 suspensions statewide. The second most used category – of the 33 categories listed – was “caused, attempted, or threatened physical injury.” Statewide, more than 134,000 suspensions were listed in this category.

A previous EdSource analysis of 2011-12 suspension data in the state’s 30 largest districts found that Fontana Unified was the most likely to rely on willful defiance when suspending a student, using it 71 percent of the time. The latest data show that Fontana’s reliance on willful defiance dropped substantially – eight percentage points – to 63 percent in 2012-13.

Dawn Marmo, coordinator for Child Welfare and Attendance at Fontana, could not be reached for a comment Wednesday. But she had told EdSource earlier this school year that legislators’ focus on the suspect category had spurred her district into reviewing its approach to discipline.

“We’re working with the student and family to keep the student in school,” she said, using strategies such as parents shadowing their student to help keep behavior problems in check, conflict mediation and referrals to counseling.

Those strategies appear to be working. Only 8 percent of the suspensions for willful defiance in Fontana resulted in an out-of-school suspension in 2012-13.

San Juan Unified, the second most likely of the 30 largest districts to rely on willful defiance, did not show any change in the percentage of suspensions in that category: 69 percent.

Poway Unified remained well below the state average in 2012-13, with only 12 percent of its suspensions for willful defiance. San Francisco Unified kept steady and below the state average at 25 percent.

Los Angeles Unified, which was at the lower end of the spectrum among the 30 largest districts in 2011-12, dropped substantially lower, from 31 percent of suspensions for willful defiance in 2011-12 to 22 percent last year.

Referring to Los Angeles and its decision to rely more on restorative justice and other policies to discipline students over suspension, Faer said that “some of the biggest gains have come in places where schools have moved quickly to adopt alternatives to harsh discipline.”

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