Bill to change ‘willful defiance’ suspension practices is postponed

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-SacramentoA legislator’s second attempt to change disciplinary practices in California schools, making it harder for administrators to expel and suspend disruptive students and eliminating the subjective category of “willful defiance” that accounts for nearly half of student suspensions statewide, has been postponed in order to hash out any remaining disagreements over the legislation.
Assembly Bill 420 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, which had been approved by the Assembly and the Senate Education committees, will be heard by the full Senate again in January, with any amendments.
Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said supporters will use the fall months to inform and educate schools and districts about alternatives to suspension. The California Endowment, a private health foundation that provides grants to community-based organizations, is offering free workshops about alternative means of correction, he said. At the same time, he added, supporters will continue to work with administrators and teachers who have concerns about the bill. Opponents have said the bill would eliminate a classroom management technique without providing additional training in alternate methods.
With the additional input, “When the bill becomes law, it will be effective on Day 1,” Dickinson said.
The bill attempts to create a new approach to discipline that recognizes that many students come to school with complex emotional issues stemming from poverty, violence and trauma. Sponsors of AB 420 see the bill as a civil rights issue because of the disproportionate number of African American students suspended for willful defiance. They point to the danger of sending students home, where they are often left unsupervised.
“When we are suspending children, it makes it more likely they can end up in the juvenile justice system,” said Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles and a sponsor of AB 420. “It’s time for a shift, and we want to make sure that everyone is on board.”
A similar bill by Dickinson passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown under the principle of “subsidiarity,” meaning that disciplinary decisions should be left up to local communities.
That principle should not be applied to AB 420, Dickinson said.
“We need a statewide policy when local discretion is being exercised that denies educational opportunities to students on a discriminatory basis,” he said.
In addition, he said, some districts are moving to “what I would call a more enlightened approach to discipline, while other districts are continuing to suspend 40 percent, 50 percent of their students. That creates a real disparity between schools and between districts.”
Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators, which opposed last year’s bill, said she was surprised that Dickinson had postponed the bill. She said her organization has been working with the sponsors to try to find amendments everyone can agree with.
Dickinson said the strongest reactions against his bill have come from members of the public.
“There is a sense of fear that if we can’t summarily exclude a student from the classroom or the school, that the disruptive students will somehow take over the school,” he said. “The real life experience is just the opposite. When discipline changes and suspensions and expulsions are reduced, academic achievement goes up.”
He pointed to Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles and Pioneer High School in Woodland. After alternative discipline practices were implemented, attendance and standardized test scores went up dramatically.
If passed in its current form, the bill would have:
Eliminated willful defiance as a reason to suspend or expel students;
Prevented superintendents and principals from expelling all students and from suspending K-5 pupils for disruptive activities;
Allowed superintendents and principals to suspend middle and high school students for such behavior only on or after the third offense in a school year and after other means to correct the behavior had been tried. Those other approaches include counseling, involving parents in the issue, and positive discipline and restorative justice techniques that expect students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends to anyone they might have harmed.
As written, the bill would not prevent a teacher at any grade level from sending a disruptive student to the principal’s office, however.
In addition, teachers and administrators “still have 23 other reasons why they can suspend or expel a student,” Dickinson said. “People have a misplaced notion that if this bill becomes law, the teacher or administrator will have lost all ability to discipline students. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
EdSource receives funding from The California Endowment to cover student health issues, but the organization has not control over editorial decisions.

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