By Tim Morrison
Leslie Mendoza found herself put out of school for angrily reacting to a teacher who singled her out in front of a noisy freshman algebra classroom, despite the fact that she had been one of the few paying attention.
“I reacted angrily because I was embarrassed and humiliated in front of my whole class,” said Leslie.
Following her angry reaction, Leslie was suspended for what is known in California as “willful defiance.” Every day in California, 2,200 students are suspended, and in Leslie’s case, the lingering effects of her suspension would severely impact her academic progress.
“It caused a chain reaction that resulted in me being pushed out of my dream school,” she said.
Stories like Mendoza’s are a major reason why legislation is proceeding in the state to curb the ability of schools to suspend or expel youth for “willful defiance.” Assembly Bill 420, authored by Assemblyman Dickinson (D, Sacramento), recently cleared the Assembly and now heads to the Senate.
“There are 23 other enumerated reasons why a student can be suspended or expelled, so “willful defiance,” which is undefined in the education code, becomes a catch-all for behavior that often times turns out to be relatively minor,” said Dickinson, speaking at an Assembly Education Committee hearing for the bill in April.
According to recently released Department of Education data, 48 percent of suspensions in California last year were for “willful defiance.” Black students in California are suspended at a disproportionate rate to other students in the state; while they account for only six percent of student enrollment, they represent 19 percent of those who are suspended.
The Center for the Vulnerable Child in Oakland supports children and families experiencing stress connected to poverty, unstable housing, and other family disruptions. Director and child psychologist Allison Briscoe-Smith says that the typical children that need support “come to the attention of teachers because they’re not paying attention or really focusing.”
Exposure to chronic stress “actually wears down our immune system, actually interrupts our ability to form connections in our brain cells, and wears down our ability to empathize,” Briscoe-Smith added.
In Leslie’s opinion, “the students feel like no one cares about them.” She, personally, understands the stress associated with unstable housing. At the time of her suspension, she said, “I was dealing with issues at home and moved in with my aunt.”
For those who are simply struggling with the stress associated with poor neighborhoods or distressed families, added Leslie, suspension may do more harm than good.
After Leslie was permitted back to school, she was transferred to a new class that was several weeks ahead of her former class. She could no longer keep up with her peers. After failing this class and falling behind in credits, her counselor told her she needed to find a different school where she could keep up.
If AB 420 becomes law, suspension will no longer be a permissible disciplinary action for the youngest students (grades K-5) accused of “willful defiance.” Older students will only receive suspensions for “willful defiance” if the punishment is for a third offense and if other means of discipline were attempted for prior instances.
Because of the linkage between school discipline’s racial disproportionality and the school-to-prison-pipeline, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) labeled ‘ending discriminatory school discipline policies’ as one of it’s top ten national goals for the second term of the Obama presidency. AB 420 is co-sponsored by the ACLU.
Brad Strong, the senior director of education policy at Children Now, another co-sponsoring organization, adds: “We’re not saying that students should not be held to high standards or be held accountable, but we are saying that there are much better ways to discipline…that don’t remove students from instruction.”
Some California schools are already employing strategies to curb suspensions.
“We provide students with the option to divert suspension through a peer-to-peer restorative justice process,” said Karen Junker, who coordinates school culture and climate at Davidson Middle School in Marin County. “Restorative sentences include school-based community service, and tutoring in subjects where the student needs academic support.”
Success of the Davidson positive discipline model is evident in the numbers. “Four years ago, we had 365 students suspended, last year under 40 students were suspended,” Junker explained. “Suspension alienates the very students who most need connection to their school community.”
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill, AB 2242. In his veto message, Brown said, “I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders.”
This year, the concerns of local leaders at the school district level are front-of-mind to the advocacy coalition. They know that the governor’s signature will come more naturally if the bill can garner support from the political heavyweights, namely the teachers unions and the associations that represent school boards and school administrators.
At the Assembly Education Committee hearing in April, legislative advocate Seth Bramble spoke on behalf of the California Teachers Association and, while expressing support for the bill’s intent, he highlighted challenges at the school-site level.
“Sometimes the secretary in the front office is not sure what to do with that child [who is removed from class],” he said. He fears that schools may lack the staff resources and training to adequately deal with disruptive students if their ability to suspend is weakened.
Representatives of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and California School Boards Association (CSBA) also indicated conditional support for discipline reform, although ACSA has concerns with the outright ban on “willful defiance” suspensions for the younger grade levels.
Representatives from both ACSA and CSBA said that if the bill can establish a definition of “willful defiance,” it can be a helpful directive for schools across the state so that, in the words of Erica Hoffman of the CSBA, we don’t just apply the one “that’s been the catch-all of everything.”
This catch-all, says Leslie, becomes “an excuse to kick people out of class, just to get rid of the problem.” Her own experience motivated her to advocate for reform, and she is now a youth organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition and a leader of the discipline reform movement.
Tim Morrison is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. He wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.