Student Well-Being

Los Angeles Schools Ban Suspensions for ‘Willful Defiance’

By Nirvi Shah — May 16, 2013 3 min read
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Although the number of days students have been suspended out of school in the Los Angeles Unified school district has dropped by more than half in the last few years, parents, students, and community organizations haven’t been satisfied with district discipline policy and practices.

While overall numbers were dropping, the proportion of black students and students with disabilities who were being suspended crept up.

This week, however, parents, students, and advocacy groups won a major victory in their war on suspensions. The 650,000-student district’s school board voted to ban dismissal from school for “willful defiance,” becoming the first district in the state to do so.

The problem with that reason for suspension was that it was too vague and subject to abuse, said Tonna Onyendu, a campaign manager at the Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles community organization. He has been working on changing discipline policy in the district for years.

“By having this arbitrary, subjective, and broad reason, it gives unrestricted discretion” to school administrators to suspend students, Onyendu said.

While willful defiance might be applied to one student who flips a chair over in class or causes a significant disturbance, it could also ensnare a student who doesn’t take off a set of headphones or is wearing a hat, he said.

Instead, schools should be getting at the reason why students are defying authority, Onyendu said.

Some Los Angeles school board members weren’t supportive of the measure. At the board meeting, board member Marguerite LaMotte told students that they needed to pay for their mistakes, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“I’m not going to give you permission to go crazy and think there are no consequences,” LaMotte said, according to the newspaper.

Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have barred suspensions for willfully defiant behavior statewide. He said he wanted to leave that decision up to local school boards.

One recent survey found that 42 percent of all suspensions in California were for willful defiance.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy will have four months to provide an outline to the board about how he will put the measure into practice.

This is one of a number of steps the nation’s second-largest school district has taken to address high rates of suspension in recent years. Many schools across the district adopted Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. At one district high school, the shift cut suspensions from more than 600 to just one in a single year.

The district is also working on upgrading the way it reports disciplinary incidents to ensure the information is readily available and disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and other statuses, Onyendu said. And it is working with school police on defining their role in schools to ensure they distinguish between school discipline and school safety issues, similar to recent action in Denver.

In a press release, the school district said that disruptive students could still be removed from classes, but they would no longer be sent home. They would be kept on campus and alternatives to suspension, including restorative practices, could be employed.

Deasy told the board that students still will be suspended for violence, drugs, fights and other behavior that threatens others, The Los Angeles Times reported. However, keeping students out of school for failing to bring material to class and other lesser misdeeds considered defiant could push them out of school and into possible trouble.

“We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating,” students, he said in the Times.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.