Themes in the News: A weekly commentary written by UCLA IDEA on the important issues in education as covered by the news media - Week of May 13-17, 2013 | http://bit.ly/12FGppQ
5-17-2013 :: This week, Los Angeles Unified became the first district in California to ban “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension. The nebulous category, which could include students being out of uniform, talking back to teachers, not being prepared for lessons, etc., had become a catchall in school discipline and was disproportionately affecting students of color. During the 2011-12 school year, almost half of the state’s 710,000 suspensions were attributed to “willful defiance” (Los Angeles Times).
The district will instead focus on restorative justice measures and positive behavior incentives as a way of reducing the number of students suspended from class. Restorative justice is an approach that focuses on repairing the harm caused and addressing root problems through shared decision-making among the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community. Passage of the resolution “ends a policy that failed to keep our students learning or our streets safe,” said Board member Nury Martinez, who authored the resolution along with Board President Monica Garcia (Wall Street Journal).
Los Angeles’ decision was a milestone in a national push against zero tolerance discipline policies, and the California state legislature now is considering legislation to curb policies that attach inflexible, automatic punishments to particular infractions. Zero tolerance is based on the mistaken belief that students’ disruptive behaviors will be extinguished when students know that there is no way they can escape the punishment. A growing body of research shows that suspensions disproportionately impact students of color and special education students, undermine student learning, and push youth further along the school-to-prison pipeline.
A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project showed that in 2009-10, 24.3 percent of black high school students were suspended, compared to 7 percent of white students. Furthermore, the suspensions escalated when race, gender and special education status intersected; for example, 36 percent of black male students with disabilities. The disparate impact of out-of-school suspensions has prompted federal investigations in dozens of school districts nationally.
Suspending students does little to correct their disruptive behavior, and it sets them further behind academically. “Suspensions are off the table at Garfield High School. I can’t teach a kid if he’s not in school,” said principal Jose Huerta (NPR). Since implementing Garfield’s new policy, designed to address students’ misbehavior without suspending them, suspensions fell from 638 in 2008-09 to one in the past three years, and the school’s graduation rate is higher than the district’s.
Suspensions, dropping out, and prison or parole comprise a trajectory that many call the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s a direct link between suspensions and a greater likelihood of dropping out of high school. “And, because of that, you’re three times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system,” said Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a South Los Angeles parent-organizing group that campaigned on behalf of the LAUSD resolution (NPR).
“Willful defiance” has been especially troubling for parents, students and community organizations because it is such a subjective category. Without knowing the specific problems, it’s difficult to find remedies that will help the student, teacher and the whole class. “It’s so broad, it’s not useful,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Community Coalition president (Huffington Post).
In the legislature, Assembly Bill 420 would ban “willful defiance” as a category of suspension for elementary students. In higher grades, suspensions would only be permissible upon a third offense, and only when alternative methods had already been exhausted (EdSource Today).
But AB 420 is a long way from becoming law. Gov. Brown vetoed a similar bill last year. And while AB 420 is an important step forward, it is just a beginning. Alternatives to suspension require more attention from counselors and other support staff and programmatic changes by the schools. This will require new resources. Moreover, because suspensions or “willful defiance” has been shown to include racial bias, addressing that bias in and out of schools must be kept at the core of new policies.