School Climate & Safety

‘Willful Defiance’ Will No Longer Be Cause for Suspension in San Francisco

By Evie Blad — March 03, 2014 2 min read
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A measure adopted by San Francisco’s school board includes a requirement that the district update its discipline policy to forbid suspensions or expulsion referrals made solely for “disruption/willful defiance.” That Safe and Supportive Schools Policy is set to kick in by fall 2014.

It’s just one part of a broader resolution that you can read on page 27 of this agenda.

In eliminating suspensions for willful defiance, San Francisco joins districts around the country that are narrowing what student behaviors can trigger classroom removal and are eliminating citations that are vague or could be subjectively applied. Those efforts flow alongside other measures designed to lower suspension and expulsion rates through preventative strategies and alternatives to suspensions, such as restorative justice.

Many schools more frequently cite students of certain racial groups for infractions like “disobedience” or “willful defiance” because some teachers perceive greater threat from the behavior of black students, for example, than they see in the same behavior from their white peers, advocates for school discipline reform have said. Arguing that suspension is too harsh a punishment for such behavior, many advocates have pushed for the complete elimination of suspensions for first offenses of any sort, particularly those that are nonviolent.

The resolution also called for alternative discipline for willful defiance that “shall reflect evidence-based interventions for differing levels of defiant or disruptive behavior, and shall include behavior de-escalation support and trauma-sensitive practices.”

San Francisco is the second district in California to adopt such a policy, The Examiner reported. Los Angeles approved a similar measure in May.

The SFUSD considers itself a statewide leader in using restorative practices over suspensions, which can intensify misbehavior and alienation, according to some studies. In 2009, the Board of Education adopted a resolution to begin implementing restorative programs districtwide and saw more than 2,500 educators attend trainings. The systematic changes led to a 30 percent drop in suspensions throughout the district from the 2009-10 to 2012-13 school years. Still, in 2012-13, black students, only about 10 percent of the school population, accounted for nearly 50 percent of suspensions and expulsions, and missed an average of 19 more instructional days per year than their peers, the district reports. Under the new policy, suspensions will only be permitted in extreme circumstances and when behavioral discipline efforts have been exhausted."

While policy changes like this receive praise from civil rights and student groups, not everyone is a fan. I have seen comments from teachers criticizing similar changes elsewhere. Without the ability to remove a student from the classroom, it can be difficult to teach other students, they say. The Examiner quotes a high school junior who says he used to get suspended “all the time” for “stupid” reasons like talking back and not obeying orders. I could see how that behavior could be pretty frustrating for an overwhelmed teacher. (Some had similar concerns about recently released federal guidance.)

The San Francisco plan includes a call for professional development for teachers related to discipline and for the issue of a reduction in classroom removal to be incorporated into labor negotiations with teachers.

California recently attributed a statewide drop in suspensions and expulsions to new district policies that promote alternatives.

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