What can happen when a child defies a teacher's instructions in a California classroom? A lot of things. That student can take a cool-down break, then sit down later with the teacher to resolve it, with the support of other school staff and parents. He or she can be pulled out of class with an in-school suspension or sent home for a day or more. And in extreme cases, that student can be permanently expelled from school.
This wide variation often happens because of a provision of the California education code known as "willful defiance." The law gives teachers and principals wide latitude to interpret and respond to student behavior, but little direction.
California's schools issued more than 700,000 out-of-school suspensions last year. The main reason given in nearly half of those suspensions was "willful defiance."
That's why I and other school administrators support Assembly Bill 420 by Assembly member Roger Dickinson of Sacramento, which would limit the use of willful defiance as grounds for suspension and expulsion for students and, in line with existing law, require the use of other means of correction to discipline a child, at least two times prior to suspending him or her.
When I started as principal at Leataata Floyd Elementary School, we had a room that teachers and students called "the Dungeon," where you were sent when you talked back to a teacher or wouldn't do your homework.
I noticed two things right away: The students in the Dungeon received no instruction by their classroom teacher and were not held accountable for their schoolwork. And the Dungeon was full of black and brown boys.
Leataata Floyd had been labeled a "failing school" under No Child Left Behind, and I came there with a lot of ideas about how to improve student achievement by focusing on rigorous academic instruction. It became increasingly obvious that I had that wrong. Changing how we approached student discipline wasn't going to be an afterthought; it was going to be a pillar of the change Leataata Floyd needed.
First, we eliminated the Dungeon.
We also started using research-based alternatives including "positive behavior intervention and supports" and "social and emotional learning," which both get students to think about how their behavior affects themselves and their classmates, and also help introduce a positive school culture that emphasizes learning.
I don't excuse students mouthing off or refusing to follow a teacher's instructions. But when you are dealing with kids who are disengaged with school, it doesn't make any sense to send them to the Dungeon or suspend them from school, farther away from the hope of learning, farther away from the person who makes a professional living in their service, and farther away from the community that supports their learning.
The data support this: A landmark Texas study shows that even one student suspension or expulsion makes it five times more likely that student will not graduate. And all students benefit from a more positive school climate, the high achievers and those who are struggling with school and their behavior.
This movement against willful defiance suspensions is happening across California and got a major boost May 14, when the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, voted to ban willful defiance suspensions for all students.
But we need the statewide changes proposed under AB 420 more than ever. Progress won't just come from the ground up, but from changing this subjective discipline category in the state education code.
I'm not the only educator saying there's something wrong. In a survey of school officials last year by the nonprofit education website Ed Source, 85 percent said they wanted better districtwide definitions of this behavior category. Nearly half of those surveyed said it was "open to misinterpretation and overuse."
And we should all be disturbed by what's happening to students of color, particularly boys and young men, because of willful defiance rules. New state data show African American students are more than four times as likely to be suspended for willful defiance as their counterparts. Let's say that again: Four times. That is unacceptable. Where there is discrimination, the state must intervene.
To somebody outside the classroom, this focus on school discipline might seem like a distraction from what we really should be doing: helping all students achieve. But when you've been inside the Dungeon like I have, you realize it's one and the same.
Billy Aydlett is principal of Leataata Floyd Elementary School in Sacramento. Read more about his story at FixSchoolDiscipline.org, a project of Public Counsel. (www.fixschooldiscipline.org/ toolkit/leataata/)