Gov. Jerry Brown dealt a blow Sunday to school discipline reform efforts in California with his veto of a bill that would have expanded the state’s ban on suspensions for “disruption and defiance” to include grades K-8.
Since 2015, it has been illegal in California for schools to suspend children in grades K-3 for behavior that is unruly but not dangerous. Eliminating these suspensions has long been a priority for youth and civil rights advocates because they are disproportionately meted out to students of color and those with disabilities.
SB 607, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, originally called for expanding the ban to include all grades, K-12. But she agreed to take the high school grades out in order to gain the support of the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association.
That, however, was not enough for Brown, who had vetoed a similar bill in 2012 before signing the K-3 ban in 2014. Like before, he cited his belief in local control as his primary reason for rejecting the bill.
“Teachers and principals are on the front lines of educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classrooms,” Brown said in the veto message he issued on Sunday.
He went on to mention a $15-million grant in this year’s state budget that will fund a pilot program aimed at providing more resources for alternatives to suspensions and other traditional punishments. “Let’s give educators a chance to invest that money wisely before issuing any more directives from the state,” he wrote.
Youth and civil rights advocates said they’re not surprised by Brown’s veto, but nonetheless are bitterly disappointed by his decision.
“[Brown] has rejected an opportunity to transform school climate and address a racial injustice in our schools statewide,” said Angelica Salazar, director of education equity for Children’s Defense Fund, California.
California schools have cut their suspensions significantly in recent years. A report issued late last month by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies showed that for K-12 students, days lost to suspensions dropped by nearly half between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years.
Yet, disruption and defiance is still by far the most common reason for suspending a student and researchers said the suspension gap between African-American students and their white counterparts remains “disturbing.” This is especially true in middle school grades, which would have been covered by the ban had Skinner’s bill became law.
African-American students lost 71 days per 100 students in the 7th and 8th grades, which is nearly four times the number of days lost by white students in those grades, according to the UCLA report. Other research has found that African-American and Latino boys receive more than half of all suspensions but only represent about 30 percent of all students in California schools.
“We understood from the beginning that this was not a silver bullet and wouldn’t solve the disparity issues on its own,” said Iván Carrillo, a legislative advocate for the school administrators’ association. “But it started an important conversation on this topic and we’ll continue to engage in this conversation and help lead this effort going forward.”
Others expressed similar optimism and pointed to all that’s been accomplished this year, including the $15 million program in the state budget. The program, which will be overseen by the departments of education in Orange and Butte counties and run by UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, will emphasize restorative justice, social-emotional learning and other alternatives that prioritize mediation and building healthy relationships over traditional punishments.
“California remains one of the nationwide leaders in terms of providing some sort of accountability as well as funding to ensure that discipline reform is effective and helping all students,” said Dan Losen, who is director of the civil rights remedies center at UCLA.
Another crucial point, said Salazar of the Children’s Defense Fund, is that groups representing school board members, administrators, teachers and charter schools — all of which at one point in time were against suspension bans — are now either in favor of them or neutral.
“We are very hopeful that we’ll be able to address this again in the next legislative session under a new governor and go for all grades,” Salazar said.
Skinner, the bill’s author, echoed many of the advocates’ positive sentiments, but was noncommittal when asked whether she would introduce a new bill next year. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to make any assumption about any governor,” Skinner said. “The coalition needs to think about how we will approach the issue and then engage.”