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In California, the Tide Shifts on ‘Willful Defiance’ Discipline

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California has limited schools’ ability to suspend or expel students for “willful defiance,” passing a law over the weekend that curbed the practice.

Approved by Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure is considered the first statewide law in the nation to apply limits on a school’s ability to punish a student for “willful defiance” – a catch-all term that many social justice advocates say disproportionately targets minority students for allegedly disobeying school officials.

The new law prohibits school suspensions for willful defiance between kindergarten and third grade and expulsions for older students, though teachers may remove a misbehaving student from the classroom. The American Civil Liberties Union, the California state PTA, the state’s superintendent of instruction, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and scores of other public school and advocacy groups advocated for the law. Assembly Bill 420 was proposed by state lawmaker Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

[Education Writers Association recently ran a detailed explanation of how school discipline rules across the country are being revised to stem the number of suspensions and expulsions minority students face. The feature includes explanations of key research related to school discipline issues.]

Assembly Bill 420’s passage wasn’t guaranteed, however. Gov. Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2012, saying at the time that he “cannot support limiting the authority of local school, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel.”

The governor wasn’t alone in his opposition to a statewide ban on some types of disciplinary options. In 2013, the California Federation of Teachers and the state’s School Board Association officially opposed an earlier version of AB 420 that prohibited willful defiance suspensions for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to a legislative analysis prepared by the California State Assembly.

The teachers union switched its position to neutral after the measure limited its scope, with its spokesperson telling Sacramento Bee reporter Jeremy White last month that while the organization  “share[s] with the author of the bill a concern that in some school districts there may be patterns of disparate treatment of certain students, and such practices must end wherever they exist,” it’s still up to the teacher to educate students “and if one student consistently prevents students from learning, there has to be a remedy available.”

Gov. Brown had also vetoed another school discipline bill proposed by a fellow Democrat; the proposed 2012 law would have put on notice any school that suspended a quarter of its pupils or 25 percent of students representing a “numerically significant pupil subgroup”.