Credit: Chris Pecoraro/iStock

With just months to go before California’s ban on so-called “willful defiance” suspensions in early primary grades is set to expire, youth advocates are pushing for passage of a bill making its way through the state Legislature that would both continue the ban and expand it to include all grades from kindergarten through high school.

The legislation, SB 607, is authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and represents the latest effort by a broad coalition of civil rights organizations to cement gains they’ve made in recent years to significantly reduce suspensions and expulsions in schools statewide.

Advocates have long sought to outlaw suspensions for behaviors that teachers and administrators deem “defiant” or “disruptive” because they are considered too subjective and disproportionately meted out to students of color.

“When we remove students from the classroom for low-level misbehavior that is part of youth development, we eliminate the opportunity for them to learn and to receive support that would address the root cause of their misbehavior,” said Angelica Salazar, director of education equity for the Los Angeles-based Children’s Defense Fund. “Study after study has shown that a reliance on suspensions to change student behavior doesn’t work.”

This is the third bill this decade that specifically targets suspensions for disruption and defiance of school authorities in California schools. In 2012, AB 2242, which also called for a K-12 ban on such suspensions, was approved by the Legislature but was opposed by organizations representing administrators and teachers and was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown cited his commitment to local control as the primary reason for his veto, saying “I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders” and that “it is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom.”

The current law, which went into effect in 2015, got Brown’s signature and support from the California Teachers Association as well as associations representing administrators and school board members because it limited the ban to just kindergarten through 3rd grade.

The law is set to sunset on July 1, meaning the K-3 ban on willful defiance would be lifted unless a new law is passed extending it.

Extending the ban to high school grades was especially important, said Sen. Skinner, explaining why new legislation is needed. “Almost every kid who is a drop out has been suspended,” she said. “When we have already invested in a kid, and they have reached the high school level, we need them to graduate. Graduation from high school has to be our goal, and we need every tool in the tool box to make that happen.”

Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, 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. Reductions have been seen across all grade levels, which gives youth advocates hope that Brown and other opponents of a full K-12 ban will change their minds.

But that doesn’t seem likely at this point. Brown’s office declined EdSource’s request for comment, but those close to the issue say he’s showing no signs of backing off his previous position. And the administrator and school board member associations have come out against Skinner’s proposal.

“This is a conversation we’ve been having for a year, and to date there has been no give regarding the grade levels,” said Iván Carrillo, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators. “Our folks are really mindful of the educational rights of every student in the classroom and they’ve conveyed to me how just one willfully defiant student can affect a learning environment.”

Skinner said that she was aware the governor feels that it should be up to local school districts to decide what to do, but she noted that several school districts have already put in place bans on willful defiance suspensions in all grades, and “those that haven’t sometimes need a nudge.”

Representatives of administrators and school board members argue that the drops in suspension rates over the past several years actually show that reforms are taking place without a state requirement extending the ban to all grades. And finally, they say rushing to impose further restrictions as reforms are in their early stages could cause more harm than good.

“The goal for all of this is that [willful defiance suspensions] won’t be needed, but we haven’t done what we’ve needed to do when it comes to training and assistance,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. “We’re not yet to the point where we’ve fully instituted PBIS and restorative justice.”

PBIS, which stands for “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports,” and restorative justice are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to traditional school discipline. Both eschew punitive approaches that remove students from the school environment and instead focus on building strong relationships among students, teachers and administrators.

The CTA, representing by far the majority of teachers in the state, has echoed the sentiments of the administrators and school boards groups. The union, in a letter to the state Assembly last year, said it is taking a “watch” 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.

The spokespeople for both the administrators and school board members associations said their organizations would likely support the bill if Skinner would be willing to give up on a ban on willful defiance in all grades, and limit it to grades K-6 or perhaps K-8.

Meanwhile, youth advocates say another ban limited to lower grade levels is unacceptable because they see this as an urgent civil rights issue for all student groups — including students of color, those with disabilities and LGBTQ students — who are disproportionately suspended for disruptive and defiant behaviors. And high school students are far more likely to be suspended for disruptive and defiant behaviors than students in lower grades.

“We have no interest in throwing our high school students under the bus,” said Brad Strong, senior director for education policy for Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization. “This impacts them as much, if not more, than any other grade level — and it’s the youth voice that has raised awareness of this problem.”

In response to the argument that teachers would lose an important behavior management tool if these suspensions were banned in all grades, Strong and other advocates point out that Skinner’s bill does not take away a teacher’s ability to have defiant and/or disruptive students removed from the classroom. They just couldn’t be suspended from school.

Advocates echo Skinner in mentioning  that several districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, have instituted bans on using willful defiance to suspend students in all K-12 grades in recent years without suffering the consequences that the opponents warn about.

Deborah Brandy, Los Angeles Unified’s director of district operations, said there was certainly resistance to the district’s ban when it was first instituted in 2013, but she felt that teachers and administrators have come around to the idea that suspensions shouldn’t be a first resort to correct student misconduct.

“I think it’s important to remember that change is a process,” Brandy said. “And over time more and more people are buying in and trusting the process.”

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  1. Erin 5 months ago5 months ago

    The children who are really being hurt by this are the children who share classrooms with children who have figured out that there are no consequences. Suspension rates are down because schools get in trouble if their suspension rates are too high. This leads to a small number of students demanding all the time and energy their teachers have to give. This leaves the well mannered and struggling students without the support they need. These … Read More

    The children who are really being hurt by this are the children who share classrooms with children who have figured out that there are no consequences. Suspension rates are down because schools get in trouble if their suspension rates are too high. This leads to a small number of students demanding all the time and energy their teachers have to give. This leaves the well mannered and struggling students without the support they need. These alternative types of discipline have not made it to the school sites, so these students continue to steal the right to an education from their peers.

  2. Heide 6 months ago6 months ago

    "Willfully Defiant" is no longer a child folding their arms, sticking their tongue out and saying "No, I don't want to".. It is violent throwing of chairs desks and any items in their path, saying "F-you", using the N word in rapid-fire succession, and making terroristic threats toward students and teachers.. Yes, as young as 5..When school boards say this is just a blip? It sends the message that there are no bad behaviors … Read More

    “Willfully Defiant” is no longer a child folding their arms, sticking their tongue out and saying “No, I don’t want to”.. It is violent throwing of chairs desks and any items in their path, saying “F-you”, using the N word in rapid-fire succession, and making terroristic threats toward students and teachers.. Yes, as young as 5..When school boards say this is just a blip? It sends the message that there are no bad behaviors and no reason to learn better behavior.. And stop with the “disproportionate” nonsense.. Misbehavior doesn’t have a color religion or sexual orientation.

  3. Joan C. McVay 6 months ago6 months ago

    I was a teacher, counselor, resource specialist, and administrator with 30+ years at grade levels K thru. grad school. I have a doctorate and experience on native reserves, inner cities, rural, and prisons. Suspension and expulsion are often used to get rid of students no one wants to deal with because of test scores, lack of money or the will to spend it in programs of intervention and prevention. CA has gone from … Read More

    I was a teacher, counselor, resource specialist, and administrator with 30+ years at grade levels K thru. grad school. I have a doctorate and experience on native reserves, inner cities, rural, and prisons. Suspension and expulsion are often used to get rid of students no one wants to deal with because of test scores, lack of money or the will to spend it in programs of intervention and prevention. CA has gone from number one at one time in history to way down the list of states as to $ spent on students and programs to help a diversified youth, families, and increasing social problems. If students could be removed from class and had a variety of in school options related to their issues that would help. Suspension and expulsion in the usual “get them out of our hair” way is a loser for our future and society. We focus on adults “wants” and not students and their and our best future.

    Replies

    • Jim 5 months ago5 months ago

      So in addition to John Q. Public (i.e., the taxpayer) having to serve as babysitter for the horrific parenting many children are receiving, we also have to foot the bill for the "restorative" in-school "programs" that Little Johnny "needs" as opposed to good old-fashioned disciplinary measures? The educational system and the liberal establishment are the problems; a return to the fundamental basics of teaching decency and adhering to standards of conduct and achievement are … Read More

      So in addition to John Q. Public (i.e., the taxpayer) having to serve as babysitter for the horrific parenting many children are receiving, we also have to foot the bill for the “restorative” in-school “programs” that Little Johnny “needs” as opposed to good old-fashioned disciplinary measures? The educational system and the liberal establishment are the problems; a return to the fundamental basics of teaching decency and adhering to standards of conduct and achievement are the solutions.

  4. CarolineSF 6 months ago6 months ago

    Everyone who covers, advocates and votes on this needs to go to a challenged school and take over handling the discipline issues for a month or so first.

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    • Scarecrow 6 months ago6 months ago

      "Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, suspensions of all types dropped by 46 percent statewide, with willful defiance suspensions dropping by 79 percent for African-American students". I wonder if there is any correlation between these numbers and the teacher shortage. Discipline in California schools has been bad for a long, long time, but when this went into effect things got real bad. The teacher shortage has only gotten worse since this went into effect. … Read More

      “Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, suspensions of all types dropped by 46 percent statewide, with willful defiance suspensions dropping by 79 percent for African-American students”.

      I wonder if there is any correlation between these numbers and the teacher shortage. Discipline in California schools has been bad for a long, long time, but when this went into effect things got real bad. The teacher shortage has only gotten worse since this went into effect. I hope we do not redo this legislation. Student discipline and lack of respect for teachers will continue to be major hurdles that the state will have to address if they want to keep the behemoth called “public education” up and running.

      • FloydThursby 6 months ago6 months ago

        I agree. Willful defiance is not something that benefits any child ever. Later it leads to being fired, laid off first, even imprisoned. All kids must learn respect for society and authority figures. Paying attention to teachers and being respectful leads to big money later on, which is why immigrants who practice this have the best lives, even when in poverty as children. Asian American, Nigerian, etc. It's just … Read More

        I agree. Willful defiance is not something that benefits any child ever. Later it leads to being fired, laid off first, even imprisoned. All kids must learn respect for society and authority figures. Paying attention to teachers and being respectful leads to big money later on, which is why immigrants who practice this have the best lives, even when in poverty as children. Asian American, Nigerian, etc. It’s just bad for all. The African American kids who want to learn have to suffer because it’s racist to suspend the jerks who are ruining the classroom ambience. Bottom line, if you want to be successful, learn to work hard, be humble, live cheap, save, study long hours, and be respectful to authority figures and love and embrace American Culture and the opportunities it provides. Kids that get used to willful defiance will be less successful as adults. This bill is a huge mistake!