Gov. Jerry Brown must decide by October 1 whether to approve a bill that will expand up through grade 8 the current law that eliminated suspensions in grades K-3 for disruption or defiance of school authorities.
In 2014, his approval of the law reflected a combination of his attention to research, as well as listening to superintendents, teachers, civil rights advocates and others.
A new report that I co-authored shows that suspensions for disruption or defiance have nearly been eliminated in K-3 grades and that several districts, including Los Angeles, have curtailed or eliminated suspensions for this catchall category for minor misbehaviors entirely in the upper grades, too.
There is no evidence that chaos replaced order as suspensions for disruption or defiance declined or were eliminated. To the contrary, our report observes that out-of-school suspensions for serious violent offenses, drugs and weapons have remained low, and are lower now than they were 6 years ago. Despite many district changes to policies, including Los Angeles Unified’s decision in 2013 to limit suspensions for disruption/defiance in all grades, reducing suspensions did not make the sky fall.
One remaining area of great concern is that despite a narrowing of racial gaps in lost instruction as well as fewer days lost overall due to suspensions, the amount of instruction lost remains high and the disparities remain the widest in grades 7-8. In these grades, due to combined in-school and out-of-school suspensions, black students lost 71 days per 100 black students enrolled and white students lost just 19 days for every 100 enrolled white students.
Another major concern is that students with disabilities are denied access to instruction because of their disability-linked behavior. For example some students with ADHD have lower levels of impulse control, are frequent interrupters, have trouble sitting still. To suspend them from school for these manifestations of their disability that they cannot easily control is the equivalent of denying them access to school because of their disability. Doing so is wrong for many reasons and violates disability law. As our research demonstrates, these students lost far more days as a result of suspensions for disruption suspensions than was lost by their non-disabled peers. Among those with disabilities, black and Native American students lost far more days than others.
Perhaps most important, in several districts, black students missed well over 100 days of instruction per 100 black students enrolled. In the district with the highest suspension rates, suspensions for disruption alone caused black students to lose 184 days per 100 students. And among the districts with the largest racial disparities, as much as 80 percent of the difference in days lost was attributed to suspensions for disruptive or defiant behavior.
Readers should note that under the proposal that Gov. Brown is considering, individual teachers could still remove students from their class for disruptive or defiant behavior, as they can under current law. These “teacher removals” are not counted as in-school or out-of-school “suspensions” because students can still attend school and not miss their other classes.
Moreover, several approaches, including training teachers to improve student engagement, implementing restorative justice and teaching social emotional skills, are credited with helping districts eliminate unnecessary suspensions while helping prevent problem behaviors from reoccurring. Having taught for 10 years in public schools, I can attest that receiving such training in my first year was pivotal to my survival in the classroom.
Many districts have spent Local Control and Accountability Plan funds on implementing alternative strategies to suspensions, including for the training and support teachers need to implement reforms successfully. Yet other districts have not, despite the clear need to improve school climates. The data suggest that not all children attend school in districts that are going to take the steps that other districts have already proven effective.
The dramatic district-level differences in lost instruction and in resources committed for reform raises questions like these: Shouldn’t all California’s schools provide sound and effective responses to minor misbehaviors?” Shouldn’t the state do more to protect students with disabilities from being suspended for disruptive behaviors that are caused by their disability?
While the data, combined with findings from other studies, supports the elimination of suspensions for all minor offenses through grade 12, protecting students from unnecessarily harsh and punitive discipline through grade 8, in every district in California, is a step in the right direction.
Another way to think about what is at stake is to imagine what could be gained by the elimination of suspensions for disruptive or defiant behavior in all grades. Based on student impact on instruction in 2016-17, in just 4 years, eliminating suspensions for disruption or defiance would save California’s children more than 625,000 days of instruction!
The legislation before Gov. Brown would provide an important and logical next step toward protecting the educational rights of all children in every district in California. Ultimately, if policymakers act in accordance with research-based recommendations, they will eliminate lost instruction due to unnecessary suspensions and help close the gap in the opportunity to learn.
Dan Losen is the Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and co-author of The Unequal Impact of Suspension on the Opportunity to Learn in California.
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