CREDIT: Alison Yin for EdSource
First graders at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

California students and parents have been at the forefront of a national movement to promote common-sense school discipline policies, and their hard work is paying off.

Robert Ross

Dr. Robert Ross

According to data recently released by the California Department of Education, our state is suspending fewer students, promoting alternatives to harsh school discipline and helping more young people stay in school.

Many education and health leaders are jubilant. Limiting suspension-first approaches to handling discipline issues has already helped increase graduation rates, and over the long run that means better jobs for today’s young people and a lifetime of improved health.

However, our progress is now in jeopardy. The Legislature has only until July 1 to renew and expand limits on suspensions for minor “willful defiance” infractions. If the Legislature and governor fail to act in time, the results could be devastating.

Five years ago, California schools issued an astounding 709,702 suspensions, nearly half for willful defiance — a catch-all category used to justify disciplinary action for minor misconduct, like talking back or chewing gum. Black students were more than four times as likely to be suspended as white students and they received harsher penalties on average, even when accused of similar behavior. Latino students and students with disabilities also faced disproportionate suspension risk.

Independent research confirms these suspension-first school discipline policies produce negative health, education and economic outcomes. One recent study found that even a single high school suspension is associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out, and a separate study found that suspensions among a single year of 10th-graders lowered graduation rates by nearly seven percentage points and cost California almost $3 billion in lost tax revenue and higher health care costs.

At the same time, suspensions did absolutely nothing to improve school climate or increase academic achievement. One review from the American Psychological Association concluded that “zero tolerance” policies may worsen classroom environments, by creating an adversarial relationship between students and school staff.

To help young people build a healthier future, students, families and communities themselves launched a movement for change. They persuaded many schools and school districts to adopt new approaches that hold students accountable for their conduct while keeping them in school.

State government followed by enacting an historic law that prohibited schools from suspending K-3 students for willful defiance for three-and-a-half years, beginning January 1, 2015.

The law was intended as a kind of experiment: ban suspensions for defiance, and see what happens.

The results of that experiment are now in. It is an unqualified success.

Overall, suspensions are down nearly 50%, academic achievement has improved and graduation rates have increased. African American students are still more likely than are whites to be suspended, but the disparities gap has declined. And, defying the predictions of some naysayers, the official California Healthy Kids Survey reports that students and teachers feel safer on campus than they did before the defiance ban took effect.

Advocates for school discipline reform have been working with state leaders for months to determine how far to extend the current law. They expected to reach agreement before the close of the 2017 legislative session, but a packed end-of-year agenda pushed the issue into 2018. And now, the clock is ticking.

State leaders must take the upcoming deadline seriously and move swiftly. Failing to reach agreement and allowing the current policy to expire would be a tragedy, with long-term negative education, health and fiscal consequences for our children and our state.

•••

Dr. Robert Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, a private health foundation headquartered in Los Angeles. 

EdSource receives support from more than a dozen foundations, including the The California Endowment. Editorial content and decision making and content are under the sole control of EdSource. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author.

EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, we encourage you to review our guidelines and contact us.

SHARE ARTICLE

Comments (4)

Leave a Reply to Lou

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Estefany 4 months ago4 months ago

    I am glad we are seeing the positive impact on banning willful defiance. Other school districts including Los Angeles Unified have also created school climate reform policies like the School Climate Bill of Rights that is working towards restorative justice in all of their schools by 2020. Let's keep up the restorative practices and end willful defiance from K-12th grade to ensure youth are being holistically supported rather than being pushed out. Encourage your local … Read More

    I am glad we are seeing the positive impact on banning willful defiance. Other school districts including Los Angeles Unified have also created school climate reform policies like the School Climate Bill of Rights that is working towards restorative justice in all of their schools by 2020. Let’s keep up the restorative practices and end willful defiance from K-12th grade to ensure youth are being holistically supported rather than being pushed out. Encourage your local representatives to support SB 607.

  2. Jordy 4 months ago4 months ago

    It is hard to sit still and read articles such as this. "State government followed by enacting an historic law that prohibited schools from suspending K-3 students for willful defiance for three-and-a-half years, beginning January 1, 2015. The law was intended as a kind of experiment: ban suspensions for defiance, and see what happens. The results of that experiment are now in. It is an unqualified success." Really? An unqualified success for who? … Read More

    It is hard to sit still and read articles such as this. “State government followed by enacting an historic law that prohibited schools from suspending K-3 students for willful defiance for three-and-a-half years, beginning January 1, 2015. The law was intended as a kind of experiment: ban suspensions for defiance, and see what happens. The results of that experiment are now in. It is an unqualified success.”

    Really? An unqualified success for who? Sure the numbers look nice, and parents do not have to scramble, nor provide childcare for their suspended child, but really who suffers? Ahhhh…. yes, the teacher who has to accept being called every name in the book, and respond in a firm but caring manner as the 13-yr-old spits day after day in her face.
    EdSource, which classrooms did you visit? Which teachers did you talk to? Or did you just look at district number sheets proclaiming success? Alas, maybe one day these quoted researchers, and quoted numbers will actually visit the classrooms for more than a mere perfunctory 10 min. one day visit to really see who the big loser in all this editorial ballyhooed opinion really is:the classroom teacher.

    Replies

    • Jon Andrade 4 months ago4 months ago

      With all respect, Jordy, when you ask "unqualified success for who" it's right there in the article: "African American students are still more likely than are whites to be suspended, but the disparities gap has declined. And, defying the predictions of some naysayers, the official California Healthy Kids Survey reports that students and teachers feel safer on campus than they did before the defiance ban took effect." So there you have it - according to … Read More

      With all respect, Jordy, when you ask “unqualified success for who” it’s right there in the article: “African American students are still more likely than are whites to be suspended, but the disparities gap has declined. And, defying the predictions of some naysayers, the official California Healthy Kids Survey reports that students and teachers feel safer on campus than they did before the defiance ban took effect.” So there you have it – according to at least one survey teachers themselves feel safer. Many would argue that some teacher discomfort (within reason) is actually acceptable if process is made on reducing racial suspensions disparities. But Mr. Ross is citing the Healthy Kids Survey to demonstrate that such a “sacrifice” may not actually be necessary. Hence his argument of an “unqualified success.”

  3. Lou 4 months ago4 months ago

    15% of CA students are Asian-American yet they are never included in these discussions even though it’s implied whites are the least suspended ethnic group. Why would you leave Asians out?