Today, there's growing agreement that California schools have gone too far in the direction of overly harsh, zero-tolerance discipline rules.
Alarmingly, each year in California more children go home with suspensions than diplomas. Kids who have been suspended or expelled are five times more likely to drop out and 11 times more likely to turn to crime.
I authored Assembly Bill 2242 to help schools trying to increase student attendance and achievement; keeping students who are struggling with behavior on track to graduate and out of the criminal justice system. Everyone wins when students stay in school. By increasing graduation rates by 10 percent, we could prevent 400 murders and 20,000 aggravated assaults in California each year.
Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown on the basis of preserving local discretion. It came under criticism in a Ben Boychuk column ("Brown wisely keeps local control for school discipline," Oct. 4).
However, under the guise of leaving discretion to local officials, recent data have found that African Americans are more than 3 1/2 times as likely to be suspended or expelled as Caucasian students, with some districts suspending 60 percent of African American students. Students of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled for low level, subjective offenses.
The problem is not a lack of local discretion, but discretion exercised in a highly discriminatory, sometimes arbitrary manner that kicks children out of school as the easy, out of sight, out of mind fix. The real solution is to keep kids in school and address their behavioral issues with proven alternative means of correction.
Currently, students can be suspended or expelled for "willful defiance," which is undefined in law. Willful defiance was the grounds for 42 percent of all suspensions in 2010-11, equaling 2,200 students per school day the highest rate in the nation. This subjective language permits expulsion for anything from failing to turn in homework, not paying attention, not taking off a hat, or swearing in class.
AB 2242 removed willful defiance as grounds for expelling a student from school. In its place, it incorporated specific language on behavior that warrants an expulsion, such as harassment, threats, and intimidation. The bill kept the ability for school administrators to suspend students for up to five days for each offense.
We need to move away from the overuse of harsh discipline by ensuring that suspensions and expulsions are reserved for the most serious offenses.
California must bring fairness and balance to our school disciplinary practices without risking school and teacher safety.