The state Capitol featured theatrics Wednesday, but not on the Assembly floor.
In a committee room, student actors put on a 10-minute play called "Willful," in which a black high school student named Tom heads to the principal's office for yet another disciplinary action. His mother is sick, and his family has problems at home.
Tom expects a suspension. But this time, Principal Burton decides to send the student to counseling and urges him to seek similar help whenever he's feeling troubled.
That sympathetic response happens too rarely, according to the Black Parallel School Board and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, among those who brought the play to the Capitol on Wednesday. Nearly half the 2,200 students suspended from California schools each day are punished for "willful defiance," according to state data.
The category can cover a wide range of unspecified behavioral problems, and critics say it gives schools too much leeway to justify disciplinary actions that fall disproportionately on minority students.
Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat running for state Senate, has written Assembly 420 this year to curtail expulsions or suspensions on the basis of willful defiance. Black or brown students are much more likely than white students to be suspended, Dickinson said. "It's a question of civil rights."
In Sacramento County, 19 percent of black students were suspended last year, compared to 9 percent of Latinos, 7 percent of whites and 4 percent of Asians. Students who are suspended are five times more likely to drop out or become involved in the criminal justice system, Dickinson said.
Donald Lee Calhoun Jr. played Tom in Wednesday's play, part of an event called "Talk it Out: A Community Conversation to Fix School Discipline."
Calhoun, 15, attends American Legion High School, a Sacramento continuation program that serves students deemed to face behavioral or academic challenges. The student actor said he's experienced harsh discipline in his real life. He previously attended Kennedy High School, where he said teachers meted out harsh discipline to all students regardless of race.
Calhoun said he decided to go to American Legion to escape the harsh discipline. When students act out at his new school, he said, teachers and students sit down and have a conversation.
Teachers at the event said the problem is the lack of counselors. Others blamed parents who didn't respond to phone calls or said teachers need additional training to work with students from different cultural backgrounds.
"We've been playing the blame game for so many years," said parent Yesenia Gonzales. "Teachers blame parents. Parents blame teachers. We're not talking to each other. The kids keep falling through the cracks."
Calhoun thinks he knows the answer: "Caring, that's what you need," he said. "If teachers care about you, you will care."