Suspended multiple times as a student, Juan Peña now fights to keep kids in class. As an organizer for Los Angeles advocacy group Youth Justice Coalition, he’s supporting legislation that would ban willful defiance suspensions in schools statewide.
Critics have long argued that these suspensions, used for behaviors like talking back or ignoring commands, have disproportionately targeted students of color, students with disabilities, and even LGBTQ youth. But if Senate Bill (SB) 607, which received bipartisan support in early May from the California Senate, makes its way through the Assembly in June and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, school suspensions in California will drop dramatically.
In recent years, school districts such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Pasadena and Azusa Unified have voluntarily stopped suspending students for willful defiance. But most districts have not abandoned the practice. In fact, willful defiance made up 32 percent of the near 220,800 suspensions in California during the 2014-15 school year (the most recent data available). A ban would have resulted in 70,789 fewer suspensions during that time period.
Peña recalled what he described as a three-day suspension from school in seventh grade for having an empty water balloon in his pocket.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The teacher thought I was going to throw it at him. He wrote me up.”
He said administrators never explained why a water balloon, especially unfilled, warranted a suspension. They also didn’t give him assignments to work on during his absence. Instead, Peña spent the next few days at home doing nothing. When he returned to school, he had difficulty understanding the schoolwork he’d missed.
“I was really behind,” he said. “I didn’t know what subjects we were being taught.”
To boot, he felt the suspension marked him as a “troublemaker,” and he continued to get kicked out of class for minor offenses, like making his classmates laugh, he said.
California State Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced SB 607 precisely to prevent other students from enduring similar ordeals. While Peña managed to bounce back from repeated suspensions, many students do not. A 2016 report on tenth graders by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a correlation between suspensions and the dropout rate. While 94 percent of tenth graders who’d never been suspended went on to graduate, only 71 percent of students who’d been suspended did. The report found that suspensions contributed to 67,000 additional U.S. high school dropouts.
“If your objective is to succeed, you don’t want them failing, dropping out,” Skinner said. “So if suspensions are causing them to drop out, it makes sense to minimize their use.”
Skinner said that if SB 607 becomes law, teachers will still reserve the right to remove disruptive students, but staff will work to address the underlying cause of the child’s behavior. She noted that marginalized youth, such as students with learning disorders, may act out because of the academic challenges they face.
David Reynolds, education director for the Pacific-Southwest region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said the students with learning disabilities are targets of willful defiance suspensions because they may have trouble sitting still or focusing on work. He said LGBTQ students are often targets of such suspensions because of dress code violations or for not conforming to gender expectations.
The ADL supports SB 607 because the organization seeks to combat unconscious bias and believes willful defiance suspensions are influenced by such biases.
“Educators in a classroom have unconscious biases just like law enforcement officers do,” Reynolds said.“That’s why two teachers could look at the same exact student’s behavior differently.”
Skinner said that school officials in Oakland Unified sought alternatives to willful defiance suspensions because they recognized that students of color were disproportionately affected. That form of discipline also failed to improve student behavior, so in 2015 the Oakland Unified school board voted unanimously to end willful defiance suspensions. The Los Angeles Unified school board scrapped such suspensions in May 2013. The following year, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 420, which amended the state’s punitive school discipline policies — to a degree. The legislation bans willful defiance suspensions of students in grades K-3 but does not ban such suspensions for older children, only expulsions. And the law sunsets next year. If it passes, SB 607 would be permanent.
Youth Justice Coalition Organizer Kim McGill is rooting for the bill but pointed out that it does have detractors. The California Teachers Association is neither in favor or against it, and the California School Boards has stated it will support the legislation if the willful defiance suspension ban only applies to K-8 students. The Association of California School Administrators did not respond to an interview request from The Chronicle of Social Change about its position.
McGill said some teachers and administrators hesitate to support a defiance suspension ban for students of all ages because they don’t believe they have adequate training in suspension alternatives. But she argued that schools can use the money they receive from the state’s local control funding formula to hire counselors, social workers and restorative justice experts instead of school police.
“Actual training and support for restorative justice is available to help school districts,” she said. “The community has a lot of solutions for schools. There should be partnerships between schools and their communities, so you have a positive climate, have more engaging instruction that’s more relevant to student needs.”
Justin Andrew Marks agrees with McGill. He’s the program manager for strategic initiatives with the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition at the Liberty Hill Foundation. He said LAUSD strengthened its community partnerships after doing away with defiance suspensions.
“Many who have had opportunities to increase academic counseling supports at their schools — that’s what they see. SB 607 — by removing this small category of suspensions — it will allow for the use of these other alternatives, these other programs and strategies that actually work, to be prioritized.”
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.