California lawmakers consider banning 'willful defiance' suspensions from schools

FILE - State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, joined others at a news conference to discuss efforts to strengthen women's reproductive rights at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 20, 2022. "Unless we are explicit about what we are protecting … someday some court could interpret privacy as not including my right to an abortion. And that's what we're trying to protect against." (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) wrote Senate Bill 274 to permanently extend the ban on willful defiance suspensions in middle and high schools. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Misha Karigaca was a middle school principal when the Oakland Unified School District revamped its disciplinary policies in 2015 to end willful defiance suspensions.

Instead of sending a student out of class for a minor infraction, teachers were encouraged to de-escalate by talking to the child quietly or writing them a note in class.

“We're not just going to move the problem and kick the can down the road to somebody else,” Karigaca said.

The discipline models could be replicated throughout California public schools under legislation sponsored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). Senate Bill 274 would permanently extend the ban on willful defiance suspensions in middle and high schools after 2025. Current law bans these suspensions permanently for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

When the earlier ban was put in place, some teachers said their classrooms became chaotic because students didn't see consequences for misbehavior. Now, even some educators who support the policy say they understand why teachers may worry that they do not have the resources to safely implement it at higher grade levels with older, and sometimes physically larger, students.

“If you're not taught basic tools to support and manage a classroom, then you are going to see behaviors escalate to a point where you might feel a little loss of control or safety in the environment that you're supposed to support,” said Justine Bernacet, the lead seventh-grade teacher at KIPP Sol Academy, a charter middle school in East LA.

She supports the bill, but other educators are cautious.

The California Teachers Assn., one of the most influential interest groups at the state Capitol, withheld support for the bill unless it is amended. The union declined to say what changes it supports. A spokesperson for the state's other large teacher union, the California Federation of Teachers, also said it won't support the bill unless it's changed.

Skinner amended the bill on April 10 to specify that teachers could still remove disruptive and defiant students from the classroom. They would be placed in a separate room for the period with other children. The single-class suspension could continue the following day, but the child wouldn’t be prohibited from attending school entirely.

“Those kids who might be acting in such a way that causes a suspension are often the very kids that we really need to keep in school,” Skinner said during a hearing last week.

Oakland is among a handful of school districts — including Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco — that have already ended willful defiance suspensions, which punish students for nonviolent acts such as ignoring the teacher, wearing a hoodie in class, talking back to a teacher or disrupting the class by tapping their feet. These disciplinary actions disproportionately affect Black, Latino and indigenous students, leading to higher dropout rates in these communities, according to a state report.

SB 274 would also prohibit the suspension and expulsion of students due to tardiness or truancy. Educators could still suspend students for more severe actions, such as physical violence, possession or use of drugs, theft or bullying.

“Excluding students (for low-level offenses) gives the teacher a false sense of command of their class,” said Renee Thomas, a Spanish middle school teacher at San Diego Unified, where these suspensions have already been banned. “Instead of tearing down that relationship, we need to build them up so the student knows that we care and they understand that there is a place for them.”

In 2014, the Pasadena Unified School District eliminated willful defiance and class disruption as reasons to suspend students. Julianne Reynoso, the district's assistant superintendent of student wellness and support services, said the district adopted a trauma-informed approach to address the root cause of student behaviors.

Under the new policy, suspension is a last resort, with a limit on days spent out of school, followed by a community reentry plan, she said.

Reynoso said suspension rates “declined significantly” in the last few years because of these efforts. Pasadena Unified in the 2021-22 school year had a 3.4% overall suspension rate with Black students suspended at an 8.4% rate. Ten years earlier, the district's suspension rate was 8.8%, and Black students were suspended at a rate of 17.3%.

“Willful defiance had to come to an end in our district so that we could focus and center our efforts on other means to support our children,” Reynoso said.

Oakland Unified’s revamped discipline model also emphasizes alternative methods to removing students from school such as restorative practices, harm repair and counseling.

The school district’s trajectory to that policy was the result of legal action. In 2012, four Black students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for racial harassment and discrimination. The federal agency investigated the district and found that Black children were more frequently and harshly punished than other students.

“We've learned that suspending kids for defiance and disruption wasn't changing behaviors, it was just pushing the behavior away for a few days,” Karigaca said.

Since the district banned willful defiance suspensions, Karigaca said his office gets a little over 100 expulsion referrals per year. Before that, it was about 500 each year, he said.

Skinner’s latest bill builds on Assemblyman Roger Dickinson’s (D-Sacramento) AB 420, which in 2014 eliminated willful defiance as a reason for suspension or expulsion in grades 1-3. Five years later, Skinner’s SB 419 permanently banned it in grades K-5 and in middle school until 2025.

The Charter Schools Development Center was one of the only groups to oppose expanding the legislation in 2019. Eric Premack, the group’s executive director, said that while they haven’t taken an official position on SB 274 yet, they are uncertain that this bill will improve state academics.

“We are very much concerned about the academic achievement gaps for several student subgroups, especially African American students,” Premack said in an email. “Given the data, however, we’re a bit skeptical that this legislation, however well-intended, will move the needle on closing achievement gaps.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.