Oakland ends suspensions for willful defiance, funds restorative justice

May 14, 2015

Two students from Oakland Unified talk with their mentor at the African American Male Achievement ManUp! Conference in February.

The Oakland Unified school board voted unanimously Wednesday night to eliminate willful defiance as a reason to suspend any student and to invest at least $2.3 million to expand restorative justice practices in its schools.

“If we are to ensure that success for Oakland children is not determined by cultural background or neighborhood, it means that we must build strong relationships with our students at school and invest deeply in restorative practices,” said superintendent Antwan Wilson in a letter to the community distributed prior to the board meeting. “This is about re-integrating students into the classroom rather than excluding them from learning.”

Community advocates who have been working statewide to eliminate willful defiance say that committing funds is key to making real change.

With the $2.3 million, “Oakland is on the way to full implementation of restorative practices in all their schools,” said Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Council, a public interest law firm that has been advocating for positive disciplinary practices. “That’s real school safety and real school climate transformation. It doesn’t work when it’s underfunded.”

The category of willful defiance and disruptive behavior has been controversial in California because it has been used disproportionately to suspend African-American students and, opponents charge, has become a catch-all for behavior ranging from not turning in homework to cursing at a teacher.

Oakland joins L.A. Unified, San Francisco Unified and Pasadena Unified in eliminating the suspension category. Azusa Unified is phasing it out over three years, starting with the lower grades. Beginning in January, a state law went into effect that prohibited schools from expelling K-12 students or suspending K-3 students for willful defiance.

Beginning next school year, Oakland will also be eliminating involuntary transfers of students to a different school, used as a disciplinary measure by districts. And the district has set up a Safe and Strong Schools Committee to work with parents and students to develop positive disciplinary policies.

“Parents and students need to be invested in the change,” Faer said. “We don’t want this to be a short-term thing.”

Oakland will spend the newly allocated funds on training school site staff on cultural awareness and developing restorative justice and social-emotional skills. The district also plans to expand the best practices learned from its African American Male Achievement Initiative to Latino students and African-American girls, Wilson said.

The district has reduced the suspension rate for all students from 4.9 percent last year to 3.3 percent so far this year, he said. The suspension rate of African-American boys has fallen from 12.7 percent last year to 8.8 percent so far this year, according to Wilson.


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