Why California is close to banning schools from suspending disruptive kids

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Two Sacramento area school districts are being sued for failing to adequately train employees on how to recognize signs of child abuse, amid the recent string of abuse that occurred at several of their schools.

California schools are suspending fewer students for unruly behavior, and advocates are hoping to bring that number down even lower with a proposed law now on the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 419, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would prohibit schools from suspending students for disruptive behavior from kindergarten through eighth grade. It builds on previous law that banned willful defiance suspensions for schoolchildren up to third grade.

The proposed law would encourage school districts “to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion, using a research-based framework with strategies that improve behavioral and academic outcomes, that are age appropriate and designed to address and correct the pupil’s specific misbehavior,” according to a Senate floor analysis of the bill.

Teachers would retain the ability, under the proposed law, to suspend students from their classroom for disruptive behavior for a period of up to two days.

California students missed more than 150,000 days of school because of suspensions for unruly behavior in the 2016-17 academic year, according to a California Senate analysis.

Skinner considers those to be lost time. She said she’s working to decrease suspensions and expulsions “because our goal needs to be to keep kids in school and to have them be successful.”

School suspensions for disruptive behavior have decreased substantially since the initial ban went into effect in 2015. The number of suspensions for willful defiance declined by 30,000 just one year after the law took effect, according to the California Department of Education.

In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 363,406 total suspensions, of which fewer than 51,000 were for willful defiance, according to the education department.

In the 2011-12 academic year, schools issued 335,079 suspensions for willful defiance alone.

The proposed laws also aims to address racial disparities in school discipline.

Students of color are disproportionately suspended for unruly behavior in California schools. Black students made up just 5.6 percent of the total enrollment for academic year 2017-18, yet accounted for 15.6 percent of total suspensions for willful defiance, according to the education department.

By contrast, white students made up 23.2 percent of total enrollment and accounted for 20.2 percent of suspensions for willful defiance.

“These particular kinds of suspension are being used to harm young people and especially black people in particular,” said David Turner, with the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, part of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“When we talk about racial equity, this bill is racial equity,” he said.

Turner said that SB 419 springs, in part, from his group’s successful effort to get LA Unified School District to ban willful defiance suspensions for all grades. He said that as a result, not only did the number of suspensions go down, but the number of graduations went up.

“The sky did not fall down,” he said.

Skinner’s bill will require school districts to get creative with how they handle difficult students, said Ramiro Rubalcaba, assistant superintendent at the Victor Valley Union High School District. Rubalcaba is a former educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I’ve learned that our schools are designed to give us the very outcomes they were designed for,” Rubalcaba said. “If we set up systems that are punitive and reactionary, we’re going to get negative outcomes. ... We can’t continue to do things the same way because we’re going to get the same results.”

The bill has gotten mixed reactions from various education-focused lobbying groups.

The California Teachers Association, the union representing more than 300,000 K-12 educators, is neutral on it.

The California State Parent-Teacher Association and the Association of California School Administrators, as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District, all have lined up in support of the bill.

The bill also would apply to charter schools.

Only one organization is on the record opposing SB 419: the Charter School Development Center.

Eric Premack, executive director of the center, said that legislative mandates like SB 419 defy the very reason why charter schools exist.

“Charter schools, the whole concept is to allow these decisions to be made at the school level, rather than a one size fits all legislative version,” Premack said.

Premack said his organization’s concern lay with the prohibition on expulsion for unruly behavior. He said many charter school programs have students working with power tools or other dangerous equipment, “and we’re concerned with how this could affect (the program’s) ability to function.”

Premack said he’s unaware of any widespread expulsion problem among charter schools and called SB 419 “a fix in search of a problem.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.