clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

California suspensions due to 'defiance' draw ire

Critics say catchall needs to be eliminated because it's overused

LOS ANGELES — 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."

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) earlier this year introduced a bill to remove willful defiance as a reason for suspension and expulsion. His bill, AB 2242, would replace that category with specific behaviors such as harassment, threats, intimidation, creating substantial disorder or a hostile environment.

Willful defiance is coming under scrutiny as attention focuses on whether "zero tolerance" discipline policies instituted in many schools in the 1990s are working, especially for minority students. A report by the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights office last fall found vast disparities in the use of suspensions and expulsions against students of color.

Black students comprise 18 percent of public school enrollment nationwide, but 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions, the report stated.

School discipline even caught the attention of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who addressed the issue in her State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature in March, saying she was alarmed to find out that 700,000 suspensions and expulsions were handed down statewide last year.

"You might ask, 'Why is school discipline a justice issue?' The answer is obvious — when children are not in school, studies show they are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system," she said. "Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year."

Most school districts across the country stipulate defiance or insubordination as a cause for discipline. The key is the punishment meted out for the offense.

Baltimore City Public Schools has managed to slash the number of suspensions from nearly 27,000 in 2003-04 to just over 11,000 in 2010-11 after extensively revising its code of conduct and disciplinary policies. A suspension for defiance is now only given if it's a repeated offense, according to district data.

In California, defiance is a key reason behind high suspension rates, particularly for black and Latino students. A University of California Los Angeles report found students of color are most often suspended for infractions relating to disrespect, defiance and disobedience.

"There's a bit of profiling that goes on, particularly with low-income African-American and Latino boys," Harris-Dawson said. "A white girl can scream and slam books on the desk and not be seen as threatening, but a black boy can do half of that and it can be taken as 'he's going to hit me.'"

For teachers, sending troublemakers to the principal's office is a necessary tool to maintain classroom discipline, said Frank Wells, Southern California representative of the California Teachers Association, who said he has not noticed an excessive use of defiance and the union has to remind teachers they can use that.

But if statistics show a disproportionate use of defiance against certain groups of students, it could indicate a cultural gap. "It's something that should be studied," he said. "But we hate to limit teachers' authority to discipline."