School Climate & Safety

Calif. Laws Aim to Curb Use of School Suspension

October 04, 2012 5 min read
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Responding to state and national concerns about the effects of out-of-school suspensions on students’ education trajectories, California has adopted several measures attempting to change the way that form of school discipline is used. Concerns linger, though, that Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of one related bill may undermine the others.

The five bills the Democratic governor signed last month will, among other provisions:

• Require districts to consider suspension and expulsion only after trying other ways to correct students’ behavior;

• Make it clear that principals don’t have to expel students who bring toy guns, over-the-counter medicines, or their own prescription drugs to school;

• Encourage schools to address truancy without involving law enforcement—truant students in California can be fined hundreds of dollars for being late to school.

• Affirm students’ right to return to school if they have been involved in the juvenile-justice system.

• Require school districts to inform multiple agencies when foster children face expulsion and to work with those agencies on interventions.

“They each tackle a piece of the problem,” said Laura Faer, the education rights director at the Public Counsel Law Center, in Los Angeles. “All of these bills are about keeping young people in school and trying to prevent them from going into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

But Ms. Faer and other advocates are disappointed Mr. Brown vetoed a measure that would have limited schools’ ability to suspend students on the grounds of the undefined concepts of “willful defiance or disruption of school activities.”

Willful defiance is the justification for more than 40 percent of suspensions in California each year, a recent report found, said the bill’s sponsor, Assembly member Roger Dickinson of Sacramento.

“The California education code lists 23 other reasons why a child can be suspended or expelled,” Mr. Dickinson, a Democrat, said. “The use of ‘willful defiance’ is at the core of school discipline in California. The other bills are good bills. ... But unless and until we do something about the way willful defiance is used, we will not have gotten to the heart of what is at issue with the way suspension and expulsion is used in our schools.”

Mr. Brown also vetoed a bill that would have required monitoring schools where 25 percent or more of all students or a subgroup of students have been suspended and encourage adoption of alternatives to addressing student behavior and discipline.

Voices of Opposition

California’s school boards’ and school administrators’ associations opposed the willful defiance bill. Mr. Dickinson said he felt Gov. Brown’s veto message was scripted by those groups.

“I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom.”

However, a report by the nonprofit research and policy organization EdSource, in Oakland, Calif., issued a few weeks before Mr. Brown’s veto, found that 85 percent of school administrators surveyed wanted a better definition of willful defiance.

“When we are suspending or expelling students for nebulous offenses, we don’t know what’s going on,” said Matthew Cregor, the assistant counsel of the education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City.

“That subjective category of discipline, ... I don’t think we have a piece of state legislation out there right now that targets it,” Mr. Cregor said..

In 2010, Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill that would have required school boards to define “willful disobedience” along with rules and guidelines for the suspensions issued for that offense. School districts would also have been barred from suspending students for violating school uniform rules, and for being absent or tardy frequently. The proposal also would have required districts to hold a hearing about a student recommended for expulsion within 10 days. If a hearing wasn’t held, students would have been able to return to their school or an alternative one.

A 2010 report by the nonprofit groups Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, in New Orleans, and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, in New York, found that about 12 percent of Louisiana public school students were suspended out of school each year, many for the kinds of violations the bill, proposed by state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, would have put a stop to. Ms. Broome, a Baton Rouge Democrat, worked with lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature to generate bipartisan support for the measure.

“The bill would not have taken away rights or restricted teachers from using any tools and strategies they wanted to use in their classrooms,” Ms. Broome said.

Local Control

But Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, vetoed the bill on exactly those grounds, adding that it would have stripped districts of local control.

“Nothing in current law prevents a school board from deciding to reduce the use of suspension or expulsion, speed up the expulsion hearing process, or hold parent-teacher conferences in a timelier manner,” he wrote in his veto letter last year.

The closest any state has come to restricting suspensions imposed for what are deemed vague reasons is Connecticut, Mr. Cregor of the Legal Defense Fund said. In 2007, state law changed to keep schools from using out-of-school suspensions as anything but a last resort, after districts tried other interventions repeatedly. Students who pose a danger to themselves or others are an exception.

The law didn’t take effect until the 2010-11 school year, but districts began changing practices right away, an analysis by Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven nonprofit that works on improving families’ lives, found. Statewide, the number of suspensions dropped from 7 percent of students a year before the law was enacted to 5.4 percent the year after, said Sarah Esty, a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2012 edition of Education Week

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