Countdown to expand ban on ‘willful defiance’ suspensions in California schools

February 15, 2018

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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