Los Angeles won’t suspend for ‘willful defiance’

Los Angeles Unified will not suspend students for “willful defiance,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The proposal would ban suspensions of students for “willful defiance,” an offense criticized as a subjective catch-all for such behavior as refusing to take off a hat, turn off a cellphone or failing to wear a school uniform. The offense accounted for 48% of 710,000 suspensions issued in California in 2011-12, prompting state and local efforts to restrict its use in disciplinary actions.

Disruptive students can be kicked out of class, but not out of school, the school board decided. Principals are supposed to develop alternatives, such as “positive behavior incentives” and “restorative justice” strategies.

Students still will be suspended for violence, drugs, fights and other behavior that threatens others, Superintendent John Deasy told the board. But he said students shouldn’t be pushed out of school for non-violent misbehavior. “We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating,” students, he said.

Black students, who make up 9 percent of enrollment in Los Angeles, drew 26 percent of suspensions for defiance. What if they account for a disproportionate share of alternative discipline referrals?

‘Restorative justice’ vs. suspension

Instead of suspending misbehaving students, schools are trying “restorative justice” programs, reports the New York Times. At Oakland’s Ralph Bunche High School, an alternative school for students who’ve been in trouble,  coordinator Eric Butler tries to teach students to defuse conflict, “come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing” and develop empathy with others.

Even before her father’s arrest on a charge of shooting at a car, Mercedes was prone to anger. “When I get angry, I blank out,” she said. She listed some reasons on a white board — the names of friends and classmates who lost their lives to Oakland’s escalating violence. Among them was Kiante Campbell, a senior shot and killed during a downtown arts festival in February. His photocopied image was plastered around Mr. Butler’s room, along with white roses left from a restorative “grief circle.”

. . . “A lot of these young people don’t have adults to cry to,” said Be-Naiah Williams, an after-school coordinator at Bunche whose 21-year-old brother was gunned down two years ago in a nightclub. “So whatever emotion they feel, they go do.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office is investigating Oakland’s high suspension and expulsion rates. African-American boys make up 17 percent of the district’s enrollment but 42 percent of all suspensions. (It would be more useful to look at their percentage of male enrollment vs. male suspensions.) Many disciplinary actions were for “defiance,” such as cursing at a teacher, rather than violence, notes the Times.

Even advocates of restorative justice admit it doesn’t work for all students. Programs vary across the country. Some schools are reducing suspensions by putting students on “administrative leave,” reports the Times. ”
Restorative justice can mean formal mediation and reparation or more spontaneous discussions.

A recent circle at Bunche for Jeffrey, who was on the verge of expulsion for habitual vandalism, included an Oakland police officer, and the conversation turned to the probability that Jeffrey would wind up incarcerated or on the streets. The student had told Mr. Butler that he was being pressured to join a gang.

“Cat, you got five people right now invested in your well-being,” Mr. Butler told him. “This is a matter of life or death.” Jeffrey agreed to go to Mr. Butler’s classroom every day at third period to do his schoolwork.

Butler’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend, he told Bunche students. When the boyfriend’s mother knocked on his door to ask forgiveness, “The want for revenge in my stomach lifted.”

Sending disruptive, defiant and violent students to an alternative school that focuses on teaching them to get along with others and build self-control sounds like a good idea to me. I’m sure it helps their former teachers and classmates. I hope it helps them.

In New York City, schools are sending students to the emergency room for behavioral outbursts, charges public advocate Bill de Blasio, who’s suing the city for data on 911 calls.

California rethinks ‘zero tolerance’

California lawmakers are rethinking “zero-tolerance” discipline laws that require schools to suspend or expel students caught selling drugs, brandishing a knife, possessing a firearm or explosive or sexually assaulting someone, reports the Oakland Tribune.

In the 2009-10 school year, 7 percent of K-12 students, 13 percent of those with disabilities and 18 percent of black students were suspended for at least one day in California schools, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, has introduced a bill to end automatic suspension, except for firearm and explosives possession. In addition, principals would not be required to report illegal activities to law enforcement authorities.

. . .  it would require a governing board’s decision to expel a student to be based not only on the act itself, but on the grounds that “other means of correction are not feasible or have repeatedly failed to bring about proper conduct.”

Another bill would remove “defiance” as grounds for out-of-school suspension, but would let schools impose in-school suspension. “Willful defiance” leads to 40 percent of school suspensions, reports AP.

School suspensions were once reserved for serious offenses including fighting and bringing weapons or drugs on campus. But these days they’re just as likely for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even student eye rolling.

More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are for “willful defiance,” or any behavior that disrupts class, and critics say it’s a catchall that needs to be eliminated because it’s overused for trivial offenses, disproportionately used against black and Latino boys and alienates the students who need most to stay in school.

“It’s so broad it’s not useful,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and chief executive of the nonprofit South Los Angeles Community Coalition. “You can’t quite define what it means, what it doesn’t mean.”

 I’ve never been a fan of zero tolerance and in-school suspension seems like a smart idea, but doesn’t this seem like a rather wide pendulum swing? It’s going to be difficult for a school board to expel a student for sexual assault or brandishing a knife.