Willful Defiance Reconsidered As Reason For Suspensions and Expulsions: AB 2242 Reborn As AB 420

A bill aimed at limiting the use of willful defiance as a reason for suspension and expulsion of students in the California public school system, is winding its way through the legislation – again.

Last year, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, introduced AB 2242 which would limit the use of “willful defiance” as a reason for suspending or expelling students. According to Assemblyman Dickinson, AB 2242 found its genesis in testimony offered at a hearing of the Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development held in December, 2011. Assemblyman Dickinson stated that the committee heard “out-of-school suspensions and expulsions had risen at an alarming rate during the last ten years, due in part to over-used grounds that students were being willfully defiant.”

AB 2242 garnered wide support as it progressed through the State Assembly and Senate. On July 3rd, 2012, the bill passed the Senate Education Committee with 34 organizations listed in support including Public Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There were exactly four organizations listed in opposition: Association of California School Administrators, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, California School Boards Association, and Riverside County School Superintendents’ Association.

And then on September 21, 2012, Assembly Bill 2242 was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.

Why did the Governor choose to veto a bill with such a wide range of support, including the blessing of Los Angeles Unified School District? In his veto message, Governor Brown contended, “It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion” and appealed to principals of “subsidiarity” which maintain that centralized authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed at the local level. Essentially, Governor Brown was advising the students, parents and thirty-four organizations that pushed AB 2242 through the legislature to rely upon “elected school boards” for accountability rather than state-level elected officials.

The latest reincarnation of AB 2242 is AB 420 which is being championed once again by Assemblyman Dickinson. Similar to AB 2242, AB 420 attempts to limit the use of the term “willful defiance” in the education code as a reason for suspensions and expulsions. In the California Education Code, willful defiance is defined as “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff.” This vague, catch-all phrase has been used to suspend students for mouthing off to teachers, eating food during class or violating the school dress code.

Under AB 420, students could not be expelled for “willful defiance” regardless of their grade. Students in grade K – 8 could not be suspended for willful defiance. The bill would also encourage less punitive methods of addressing problem behavior. Suspension of a student in grades 9-12 for willful defiance could only occur after the third offense.

CALPADS Database Reveals Over 40% of Suspensions Attributed to Willful Defiance
According to CALPADS, the school year 2011-2012 had over 700,000 suspensions and over 9,500 expulsions statewide. Some students were suspended more than once which explains the discrepancy in one part of the database which indicates that 366,629 students were suspended – only the first suspension for each student was counted. Of the total 709,596 suspensions (as opposed to the number of students suspended) 341,112 of those suspensions were for willful defiance. Approximately 40 percent of all suspensions were for willful defiance.

We Cannot Teach Students Who Are Not In School
In a California Department of Education News Release on April 19, 2013, Tom Torlakson, State Schools Chief, reacted to the information provided by the CALPADS, “Common sense tells us that we cannot teach students who are not in school.” Torlakson continued, “I hope that parents, teachers, administrators, and students see this information as the starting point for discussions about how to find alternatives to suspension that sustain healthy learning environments while keeping as many students as possible in class.”

Torlakson isn’t the only person voicing support for curbing the suspension of students.

Los Angeles Unified School District Has Already Limited The Use of Willful Defiance
In May, 2013 LAUSD voted to ban the use of willful defiance as grounds for suspension. LAUSD has chosen to implement on a district-wide level a plan similar to what AB 420 would accomplish on a state-wide level. Like AB 420, LAUSD would now attempt to hold students accountable for their actions through conflict resolution and prevent disruption through positive behavior intervention.  This action aimed at prevention and resolution must have been deemed preferable to simply sending a student home on an unsupervised extended vacation.

As noted in a recent study published by the University of Kentucky, “Considerable evidence suggests that a history of suspension from school accelerates youths’ progress along a pathway to delinquency and life-long failure.” In an article addressing the efficacy of “Zero-Tolerance” policies in school and surveying relevant studies, The American Psychological Association stated that “school suspension, in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended” and are “moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.”

Is it so very difficult to surmise that a child suspended from school is more likely to find trouble or dropout than a child kept in school and compelled to complete classwork and make amends? Apparently Supt. Deasy was either aware of these particular studies or harbored similar beliefs when he voiced approval for the ban, stating “We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating students.”

Will AB 420 Lead To Unruly Classrooms?
A close reading of AB 420 reveals that children that are “willfully defiant” can still be removed from the classroom. They can receive “in-school” suspensions. They cannot receive out of school suspensions unless other alternatives such as behavior support plans and less punitive measures are attempted. Additionally, AB 420 does not limit any of the other 25 reasons that children might be expelled or suspended such as hazing, bringing a gun to school, bringing an imitation gun to school, bullying, creating a “burn page”, receiving stolen property, and bringing drugs to school. This is only a small sampling of the numerous very specific reasons a student may be suspended or expelled from school.

AB 420 will prevent suspension of students for the more harmless transgressions. The transgressions that can and should be handled by inclusive and preventative measures rather than the heavy-handed extreme of suspension or expulsion.

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