Hoping for a friendlier response from Gov. Gavin Newsom than she got from Jerry Brown, state Sen. Nancy Skinner is again proposing legislation that would ban out-of-school suspensions in all grades for student behavior deemed “defiant and disruptive” by school authorities.
If Skinner’s bill, SB 419, passes the Legislature, it will mark the third time this decade that a ban on these suspensions — which data show are disproportionately meted out to students of color, LGBT students and those with disabilities — has reached the governor’s desk.
In 2012, Gov. Brown vetoed a bill calling for a K-12 ban. In 2014, he signed a bill that shrunk the ban to only include grades K-3. But he brandished his veto pen again last year after the Legislature passed a K-8 ban proposed by Skinner, a Democrat who represents Berkeley, Oakland and other East Bay cities.
Brown’s primary reason for rejecting both bills was his belief in local control. “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 last October.
Meanwhile, Skinner and youth advocates have long argued that local control shouldn’t trump students’ civil rights when a large body of research shows that students in marginalized groups receive these suspensions at the highest rates across all grade levels.
“When you look at the data on who is suspended, you can’t help but see the stark reality,” Skinner said. “Boys of color, kids in special education, LGBTQ kids — kids who don’t fit all of our cultural norms — are targeted due to the implicit bias that we know is present in every institution we have.”
A spokesman for Newsom declined to comment on Skinner’s bill. However, Skinner and the advocates supporting the bill expect the new governor to be more receptive than his predecessor.
“He has a track record of being committed to both juvenile justice reform and education,” said Emilio Lacques-Zapien, a youth organizer with the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition. “This bill ties those two issues together and we are feeling more confident in his leadership.”
Tony Thurmond, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, did not respond to requests for comment. However, he voted for the K-8 ban last year while serving as a state Assemblyman representing parts of Oakland and other East Bay communities.
Even though the current ban only covers early elementary grades, schools statewide have in recent years drastically reduced the number of defiance and disruption suspensions they’ve issued in all grades. California schools issued about 335,000 such suspensions to K-12 students during the 2011-12 school year, far more than any other category of suspension, state data show. In 2017-18, the number had dropped to below 60,000.
Also helping to drive down the numbers is the fact that suspension rates are among the statewide indicators on the California School Dashboard, the state’s online report card for schools. A school with multiple years of high suspension rates that aren’t improving is at risk of being designated as low-performing if it also scores poorly on other measures, such as test scores and graduation rates.
Even though many schools are reporting dramatic drops in overall suspensions, African-American students are still suspended three times as often as their white peers, according to the state data. It is this reality that has led two powerful groups — the California Association of School Administrators and the California School Boards Association — to switch from opposing suspension bans to supporting them.
Last year, the school administrators’ association was on board with a K-12 ban but the school boards’ association would only go so far as a K-8 ban, which factored into Skinner’s decision to not include high school grades in the final version of the bill she authored last year.
The bill Skinner proposed last week calls for a K-12 ban, but includes a five-year sunset for the ban in grades 9-12. The idea behind the sunset clause is to give both local and state officials the opportunity to evaluate how alternatives to suspensions are working in high schools before going ahead with a permanent ban, Skinner said.
“The point of the evaluation is to make sure that the removal of this tool (suspensions) is not impacting classrooms or teachers in a negative way,” Skinner said.
While the bill does not include funding for an evaluation process, it does make a specific reference to $15 million approved by the Legislature and Brown last year to fund a pilot program aimed at providing more resources for alternatives to suspensions and other traditional punishments.
The grant program, which will be overseen by the county offices 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 emphasize mediation and building healthy relationships.
“We are hoping that when the 9-12 ban is in effect, we will be able to prove what we already know to be true, which is that these suspensions unnecessarily push youth out of school,” said Lacques-Zapien of the Youth Justice Coalition.
Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the school boards association, said it’s good to know that the bill includes an evaluation process, but couldn’t commit to a K-12 ban. “I’ll take this to my legislative committee and we’ll have a full-blown discussion on it,” she said.
Another powerful voice in the discussion is the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Last year, the union switched from opposing the bill to a neutral position after Skinner limited it to grades K-8.
Union spokespeople did not respond in recent days to calls and emails seeking comment on the new bill. In a previous interview, Eric Heins, the union’s president, said the push to reduce suspensions without corresponding investments in alternatives to traditional discipline has led to instances in which lower suspension rates do not necessarily mean less chaotic classrooms.
“If a student is sent back to the classroom without any restorative practices, then you are just continuing a problem situation,” Heins said in an interview with EdSource in December. “We call this gaming the numbers. (Administrators say) ‘Look, we’ve reduced suspensions,’ but you really haven’t helped the student succeed.”