California Prevents Public Schools from Suspending K-8 Students for ‘Willful Defiance’

Published January 21, 2020

California public school students in grades K-8 will no longer face suspension for willful defiance, beginning July 1, 2020.

Traditional government schools were already banned from suspending children in grades K-3 or expelling minors for willful defiance. S.B. 419 expands the prohibition to students in charter schools, which are public schools with less state regulation.

The new law, which puts a moratorium on the suspension of students in grades 6-8 until July 1, 2025, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on September 9.

‘School to Prison Pipeline’

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who sponsored S.B. 419, says the goal of the legislation is to disrupt “the school to prison pipeline” that she says begins with racial disparities in school discipline and ends in higher incarceration rates for racial minorities.

“Data show that black and brown youth are far more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers and long-term studies have revealed that students who are suspended for at least 10 days are less likely to graduate and more likely to be arrested and incarcerated by their mid-20s,” Skinner stated in a commentary published by EdSource, an education website, on August 13.

The suspension rate for black males in California schools is 12.8 percent, and it is 3.6 percent for all students, Skinner says.

“The problem intensifies as young black students transition to grades 4-8,” Skinner stated in her commentary. “The school suspension rate for black male students jumps from 6.2 percent in K-3 to 14.4 percent in grades 4-6 and 21.2 percent in seventh and eighth grades.”

As adults, African-American men constitute 28 percent of the male population in California state prisons, although they only represent 5 percent of males statewide.

Less Classroom Control

Students are suspended for a variety of behaviors, and top-down, state-law approaches to education limit schools’ options in dealing with problems, says Lennie Jarratt, education project manager at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“This ban will cause the teachers to have less control over their classroom, and education outcomes will most likely be negatively impacted,” Jarratt said. “A unilateral move like this will not have the desired results because a one-size-fits-all approach tends to make things worse.

“Besides parents, classroom teachers are the closest to how a student is learning and handling situations,” Jarratt said. “They are the front line in helping identify learning gaps, personal issues, or other problems hampering learning. A more positive approach would be to leave the decisions up to the individual schools.”

Teachers will retain the authority to suspend students from their individual classes for up to two days at a time, and schools still have disciplinary options to manage kids, such as “in-school suspensions” which don’t impede students’ learning, and it will be important for them to use what options they have, says Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

“If schools don’t do something to extinguish bad behavior, they will get more of it—with additional students joining in,” Sand said. “It will depend on how the teacher’s school handles the problem student. If the kid just gets a slap on the wrist, the bad behavior will continue.”

Good Kids, Big Losers

Parents should have more freedom in the educational system and be able to move kids between public and nontraditional schools, Jarratt says.

“This could mean the ability to attend another public school outside their zoned school, the ability to choose a public charter, the ability to choose to attend a private school, or a mix of all of the above,” Jarrett said. “Education choice has proven to provide safer schools, better mental health, and better education outcomes.”

Each district should make decisions in their students’ best interests, starting with giving teachers the discretion to use the methods they believe will be most effective, Sand says.

“Let each school district—the parents, students, and administrators—figure out how best to manage miscreant student behavior,” Sand said. “A teacher is the leader of the class. Once a teacher is disempowered, anarchy results.

“I have been in classrooms where the teacher was weak,” Sand said. “The kids could smell that, and as a result, there was no learning. And of course, the good kids, the kids who really want to learn, are the big losers.”

Brandon Best ([email protected]) writes from Cedarville, Ohio.