Politics & Government

California bill curbing ‘willful defiance’ suspensions opens school discipline debate

The way he sees it, a stolen backpack could have derailed Brian Hernandez’s academic career.

Frustrated that his bag had disappeared along with the schoolwork it contained, Hernandez said, he fell into an argument with his teacher and was sent out of the room. Next time it happens, a counselor said, step outside and cool off. So he did.

“We got upset at each other again, and it was over some work also,” recounted Hernandez outside a recent hearing he attended at the state Capitol with other youth advocates. “I just said, ‘can I go outside? Because I’m feeling kind of upset.’ I raised my hand and he completely ignored me, so I walked out.”

When Hernandez returned to the classroom after a couple of minutes, according to the student, the teacher suspended him for three days – during finals week.

One reason for the suspension, according to Hernandez, was what’s commonly referred to as “willful defiance.” One of many justifications California teachers can invoke to banish wayward students from classrooms, the practice has drawn scrutiny from educators, civil rights advocates and legislators who say it is overused.

Adding to the growing backlash is a resuscitated Assembly Bill 420, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, that would ban expulsions based on willful defiance and prohibit willful defiance suspensions for the youngest California students, those in kindergarten through third grade.

“Soon enough, everybody will have equality in school and no one will be suspended because the teacher had a bad day or the student had a bad day,” said Hernandez, now a 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles.

California’s education code lists dozens of reasons to suspend or expel students. Among them are instances where a student “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority” of teachers and administrators. Statistics from the state’s Department of Education show that willful defiance was listed as a reason in 43 percent of the 609,776 suspensions handed down in the 2012-13 academic year.

That isn’t to say it is the sole factor spurring those suspensions. Administrators often list willful defiance as one in a universe of related infractions. Hernandez’s principal said the student was punished only after a pattern of misbehavior that administrators tried unsuccessfully to correct. Principal Bruce Bivins refrained from getting into specifics but said the case was more complex than a student talking back to a teacher.

“I can’t say willful defiance is not part of it, but I can say he was not suspended for willful defiance,” Bivins said. “We do everything we can at this point to avoid suspension across the schools.”

Still, Dickinson and other advocates say the willful defiance provision has become a blunt tool that varies wildly in its application and falls disproportionately on students of color.

“If you’re an African American boy, you are three and a half to four times more likely to be suspended out of school,” Dickinson said. And while the education code establishes specific reasons for suspensions, like selling drugs or bullying, “willful defiance is like the catchall. It’s anything else.”

Once a student is suspended, skeptics say, the consequences can cascade and multiply. Kids out of school are more likely to get into trouble in an unsupervised environment, they say, and some studies have shown that students pulled from school become less likely to graduate.

“What we’re going to continue to see is the students most at risk from disconnecting from school, and ultimately not completing school” being punished, said David Sapp of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the bill’s sponsor. “That’s what we know is the consequence of the current failed, exclusionary, harsh discipline policies.”

Defenders of classroom order warn about binding teachers too tightly, arguing that they must be empowered to control classrooms and discipline unruly students. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a prior version of Dickinson’s bill, writing in his veto message that “I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders.”

“It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom,” Brown wrote.

After halting a new bill late last year, Dickinson resumed this week with a scaled-back version focusing on the youngest students that he hopes will allay Brown’s concerns. The changes have led organizations like the Association of California School Administrators to drop their opposition.

Still, there is disagreement about how far California should go. There’s a broad consensus that willful defiance is overused and applied disproportionately to African American students, said Laura Preston of the Association of California School Administrators. But she said a single combative student can drag down dozens of classmates.

“When we’re talking about civil rights, are we talking about the civil rights of the student acting out, or are we talking about the civil rights of the kids in the classroom who want to learn?” Preston said.

California’s two teachers’ unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, have adopted neutral positions on Dickinson’s bill.

“We share with the author of the bill a concern that in some school districts there may be patterns of disparate treatment of certain students, and such practices must end wherever they exist,” said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the teachers federation, but “the teacher has a responsibility for the education of all her students, and if one student consistently prevents students from learning, there has to be a remedy available.”

The nature of that remedy is in dispute. For advocates pushing to end willful defiance suspensions, the rule is just one particularly egregious manifestation of a larger issue in education policy. They urge a fundamental shift in how schools deal with students who act out.

“The message is now: ‘We don’t want you.’ And we have to disrupt that message,” said Dr. Robert Ross of the California Endowment, who has worked on African American youth issues. “For vulnerable and challenged kids the message has to be, if you’re dealing with an issue, we can help you.”

Some districts have begun experimenting with alternatives. The state’s largest, Los Angeles Unified, is phasing out willful defiance suspensions. Part of the rationale is a recognition of how unevenly they are applied, according to Isabel Villalobos, who oversees student discipline for the district.

Students in Los Angeles can still be suspended for violent behavior that puts other kids in danger, Villalobos stressed. But in situations where students would typically be ordered out of the classroom or suspended, the district is pushing teachers to delve into what underlies behavioral issues.

“In describing the behavior, we really get down to ‘OK, does this student need to be disciplined? Or does this student need to be counseled and interventions need to be applied?’ ” Villalobos said.

A similar shift is underway at the Vallejo City Unified School District. Teachers there are encouraged to work with administrators, parents and misbehaving students. They can arrange conferences to talk out conflicts or try to connect kids to public services like mental health resources.

“The last thing we want is for Johnny to take away education from the other students,” said Superintendent Ramona Bishop. “This isn’t about looking away while he continues to do this. This is about addressing the root cause to make sure this doesn’t keep happening over time.”

That type of broad rethinking takes time. Three years in, Bishop said, a “common understanding” of the new strategy has begun to emerge.

It can also take money. Teachers need to be trained, which requires resources and coordination that have not always materialized, Preston said. Setting up interventions and conferences asks more of educators who are often already overloaded with work.

“Part of our concern has been, it’s one thing to say you’ve removed this ability – it’s willful defiance today, it might be something else tomorrow – but we’ve done nothing to help people dealing with students deal with them differently,” Preston said. “We don’t agree with Assembly member Dickinson when he said that while the work is hard, it’s not expensive.”

It’s a debate worth having, Dickinson said. His bill contains an expiration date ensuring that, should it become law, it would sunset in 2018. He hopes the interim semesters would give administrators and teachers time to evaluate how they discipline kids.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed at 11:45 a.m. Aug. 18, 2014 to correct the name of principal Bruce Bivins.