Will state budget deal include expanded ban on ‘willful defiance’ suspensions?

June 4, 2018

A proposal to expand California’s ban on “willful defiance and disruption” suspensions in early elementary grades — so it includes all grades K-12 — is expected to be a topic of discussion as state lawmakers and the governor’s office work to hammer out a final budget deal.

Under state law, willful defiance refers to students behaviors that lead to “disruption of school activities or otherwise willfully defy the valid authority of school staff.”

This issue could be part of the budget talks for two reasons. First, Gov. Jerry Brown surprised youth and civil rights advocates working on the issue by including an extension of the current law, which only covers grades K-3, in his May Revision of his proposed 2018-19 budget.

Second, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who authored a bill calling for the expansion of the ban to K-12 grades, is on the 10-member committee charged with reconciling various budget proposals by the Legislature’s June 15 deadline.

Skinner’s bill, SB 607, represents the third attempt this decade to outlaw in all grades defiance and disruption suspensions, which data overwhelmingly show are disproportionately meted out to African-American and Latino students and those with disabilities.

Brown vetoed a 2012 bill that called for a total ban in all 12 grades — citing his belief that it violated the spirit of local control, a cornerstone of his education policy. In 2014, he supported a compromise bill that banned willful defiance suspensions in only the K-3 grades. That legislation included a sunset provision which says the law is only in effect until July 1 of this year.

“The trailer bill language proposed as part of the governor’s May budget revision seeks to make permanent the prohibitions on out-of-school suspensions for ‘willful defiance’ in grades K-3,” said a statement from Brown’s office emailed to EdSource.

However, youth and civil rights advocates interviewed by EdSource say the governor had other options he chose not to take.

Chiefly, advocates say, he could have allowed the current law to sunset while voicing support for Skinner’s bill, which has passed the full Senate and the Assembly Education Committee and is awaiting a floor vote in the Assembly.

“[Brown’s action] is disappointing and communicates to us that he does not support other grades being included in the protection,” said Angelica Salazar, director of education equity for the Children’s Defense Fund – California, which is one of more than 200 youth advocacy and civil rights organizations statewide supporting Skinner’s bill. “It falls very short of the measures we need to be implementing to improve school climate for all grades and all schools.”

Skinner said she’s not ready to reach the same conclusion as Salazar and other advocates because she has not yet spoken directly with the governor’s office about his reasons for including the ban in his May Revision. She is, however, happy that she and the governor’s representatives have a chance to discuss the issue at such a crucial time.

“I’m very glad to be named to the conference committee, and I’m looking forward to that conversation,” said Skinner, who also indicated she might be open to a ban that extended through middle school but did not include high school.

Previously, Skinner said she was not willing to make such a concession. But she softened a bit on her position when questioned in recent weeks.

“I think willful defiance suspensions are bad no matter what the age and no matter what the reason,” Skinner said. “However, if we are able to come to a place where there is openness to something broader than K-3 but perhaps not what I’m trying to achieve, I am open to having that conversation.”

Many youth and civil rights advocates have long said the willful defiance category of suspensions is overly vague and could play into the unconscious biases that teachers might have against students of color. More than 200 youth advocacy and civil rights groups from across the state signed on as sponsors to Skinner’s bill.

Statewide across all grades, African-American and Latino boys received 54 percent of “defiance and disruption” suspensions during the 2016-17 school year despite making up only 28 percent of all students, according to an analysis of state data by the ACLU of Southern California.

The governor’s office has thus far refused to comment on Skinner’s bill. Brown made his feelings clear in the message he attached to his veto of the 2012 bill. “I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders,” he said in the message. “It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom.”

However, he has not directly spoken out on the issue since then.

Advocates gain key supporter

Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, K-12 suspensions of all types dropped by 46 percent statewide, with willful defiance suspensions dropping by 79 percent for African-American students, according to state data released late last year.

Those statistics, plus the continued disparities in suspension rates of African-American students even with the overall drop, has led one important voice in the debate to change sides. After years of opposition to a K-12 ban on willful defiance suspensions, the Association of California School Administrators last week announced its support of Skinner’s bill.

“Unfortunately, data collected by the California Department of Education show that African-American students continue to be disproportionately suspended for willful defiance, wrote Iván Carrillo, a legislative advocate for the school administrators’ association, in a letter to Skinner. “Addressing this disparity will require much more than the elimination of willful defiance (suspensions), but SB 607 is a step in the right direction.”

Youth and civil rights advocates focused on the issue see the change of heart by the school administrators’ association as an optimistic sign during their final push to change Brown’s mind before he leaves office at the end of the year.

“The movement is still growing,” said Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. “We’re hoping that such a powerful voice, along with others, would help persuade the governor.”

Several school districts in the state, including Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, have instituted their own bans on willful defiance suspensions in all grades. And Whitaker said his analysis of suspension data showed that 4,000 schools statewide did not issue a suspension for willful defiance during the 2016-17 school year.

Two weeks ago, advocates held a “call-in day” for teachers across the state to contact the governor’s office and voice their support of Skinner’s bill. And Whitaker said he and other advocates are organizing a student caravan to travel to Sacramento in the coming weeks and perhaps a camp-out on the lawn of the governor’s mansion.

Time is running short. If Skinner can’t make a deal before the June 15 deadline for the budget, she and the advocates will have until late September or early October at the latest to convince Brown to support SB 607 before he leaves office.

Powerful opposition remains

Two other powerful interest groups have yet to throw their support behind a K-12 ban.

The California Teachers Association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, has taken a neutral position on Skinner’s bill, with its support contingent on amendments that would fund adequate teacher training for alternative discipline methods and give them a say in decisions regarding which alternatives are used.

And the California School Boards Association remains opposed to the bill as long as it does not include resources for schools to implement alternative discipline strategies.

“We see it as a two-sided issue,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the school boards association. “You are taking something out of [a teacher’s] toolbox…you can’t just yank something away and expect the situation to fix itself.”

Youth and civil rights advocates who are focused on the issue bristle at the “toolbox” argument that is often cited by opponents. They point out that even if willful defiance suspensions are outlawed, teachers and administrators still have nearly two dozen other categories to choose from as a basis to suspend students.

“There are 22 other reasons for which you can suspend or expel students, including fighting, bullying, vulgarity, potential harm to another student and destruction of school property,” said Brad Strong, senior director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based youth advocacy organization. “There is even another defiance/disruption code for conduct that rises to the level of extreme disruption.”

Hoffman said the school boards association would be willing to support a K-8 ban, something that several of the youth advocates also said would be a possible compromise.

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