More than half of suspensions are for “willful defiance” of school authorities

More than half of all suspensions and a quarter of expulsions in California schools are for “willful defiance” of school authorities, according to a new database that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is scheduled to release this Friday.
Until now, only very limited data on school suspensions and expulsions by school were available to researchers and others attempting to understand and address school discipline issues. The database represents a major step forward in providing a detailed portrait of who is suspended and expelled, and for what discipline violation.
The new database shows that African American students, who make up only 6.5 percent of public school students, comprise 19 percent of all suspensions. By contrast, white students make up 26 percent of student enrollment, but only  20 percent of suspensions. Latino students are suspended at approximately the same level as their proportion of the total student enrollment.
California Department of Education officials provided a preview of some of the new data at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development chaired by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. “The California data is long overdue and I am very pleased that the department has collected the data and is releasing it,” he said.
Legislation authored by Dickinson (AB 420) that will restrict the use of the ill-defined “willful defiance” category to suspend and expel students will be considered by the Assembly Education Committee today. Dickinson said that until the new figures were released, previous data had shown that “willful defiance” accounted for around 43 percent of suspensions. “Frankly it is startling,” he said. “If it is as high as 53 percent, it only underscores the need to address the use of willful defiance as a basis for suspensions and expulsions.”
The new database, collected as part of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), will for the first time provide a breakdown of suspensions and expulsions at a school, district and county level, as well by students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds, whether they are English Learners or are special education students, and by which education codes their discipline violations fell under.
Another limitation of existing data has been that the state could only report on the total number of suspensions, rather than how many individual students had been suspended.
In the 2011-12 school year, there were 710,869 in-school and out-of-school suspensions in California schools, but many students were suspended more than once. The new database shows that a total of 366,629 students were suspended during that year – a suspension rate of approximately 6 percent. That means that about one in 16 of all public school students were suspended at least once during the school year. Because students are suspended much more frequently in high school, suspension rates for grades 9-12 are likely to be far higher than that.
Keric Ashley, director of the Department of Education’s Analysis, Measurement and Accounting Reporting Division, cautioned that since the data are new, they should be the “starting point, not the ending point” for discussion.
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