For state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the issue is clear-cut: no student should be pushed out of school for relatively minor misbehavior. If students aren’t in school, she says, they can’t learn — and are more likely to end up in deeper trouble, or even ending up in the “school to prison pipeline.”
That’s why she is once again trying, now that she has the Legislature’s approval, to convince another governor to sign a bill she authored, SB 419, to expand a ban on suspending students for disruption of school activities or “willfully defying” school authorities. Under current law, the state already bans suspensions for willful defiance in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Skinner’s bill would widen the ban to grades 4 to 6, with a trial five-year ban in grades 6 to 8 as well. Students could still be removed from the classroom for willful defiance for up to two days as long as they didn’t have to leave the school, and participated in what is called an “in-school suspension.”
“Willful defiance” is one of the most vaguely defined categories of suspension and, Skinner and others argue, is often misused. African-American students in particular have been disproportionately targeted for suspensions for willful defiance. Currently African-American students make up 5.6 percent of the total student enrollment in California, but 15.6 percent of those suspended for willful defiance. That is the case even though willful defiance suspension have declined dramatically over the past half dozen years.
The law defines willful defiance as “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.”
Over the last several years California has made reducing suspensions a major priority and many school districts have implemented alternative discipline strategies, including restorative justice and a program called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. As a result, total suspensions for all categories of behavior have dropped by half over the past six years.
Some school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest, have banned suspensions for disruption and willful defiance altogether, not only in the middle grades. As a result, willful defiance suspensions have dropped even more precipitously than suspensions for more serious behavior. In 2011-12, willful defiance accounted for about half of the approximately 700,000 suspensions in the state. By the 2017-18 school year, they made up only one-sixth of the 363,000 suspensions during the year.
Skinner’s bill has many supporters, including the California State PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACLU, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association. Only one organization is officially against it — the Charter Schools Development Center, an organization that provides technical services and other services to help charter schools get started.
Reflecting concerns among many teachers that removing their ability to suspend students this way could make it harder for them to manage difficult children, the California Teachers Association has not taken a position on the bill.
However, even if Gov. Newsom were to approve SB 419, state law would still allow teachers to send students to the principal’s office for disruption and willful defiance, and be kept out of the class for that day and the following day. The principal would be required to convene a parent-teacher conference as spam as possible, attended by a school administrator if requested by the parent or the teacher.
In 2013, former Gov. Jerry Brown somewhat reluctantly signed into law a ban on out-of-school suspensions of K-3 students. A year before, he had vetoed a similar bill that would have eliminated those suspensions in all grades. And just last year, he once again rejected a bill that would have expanded the ban through the 8th grade.
As he did throughout his governorship, he insisted that the principle of local control should apply to suspensions as well. “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 his veto message of Skinner’s bill last year.
Skinner would still like to extend the ban to all grades. One compelling reason is that most suspensions occur when students are in middle and high school, not in elementary school. But she has scaled back her aspirations. The bill that is now on Newsom’s desk awaiting his signature or veto only extends the ban to all elementary grades — and to middle schools for a five-year period.
It is true that school districts can decide whether to eliminate the use of willful defiance suspension, without any prodding from the state. In addition to L.A. Unified, school districts in Oakland, San Francisco, Pasadena and nearby Asuza have done so for all grades. .
But Skinner feels strongly that state intervention is necessary. “Sometimes state action is necessary to address gross inequalities,” she wrote in a commentary for EdSource last month. “We must eliminate willful defiance suspensions throughout the state if California is serious about addressing racial disparities in our school discipline system.”