Originally published in Youth Radio and featured on San Francisco Chronicle.
California has just adopted a law that limits the way schools use “willful defiance” as a reason for suspending and expelling students. Because this category is so vague, schools have used it to suspend or expel kids for minor things like interrupting a class or speaking over the teacher.
The new law forbids expelling students in kindergarten through third grade for willful defiance and limits suspensions on this basis to kids older than fourth-grade.
I believe this new law puts us in the right direction toward how schools should operate.
When I was around 7, I remember getting into a fight with a kid on the playground. The teachers didn’t suspend me. They sat me down next to the kid and made us each tell the story from our point of view. We got the story straight. We would each apologize for what we did wrong in the situation and shake hands. And then we went back to playing.
This strategy helped me more than taking me out of school. If I were suspended, I would have spent the day watching TV and ended up back out on the playground later. But not all kids in California are that lucky.
I recently learned that kids in California have been suspended and expelled at very high rates for trivial behavior such as talking back to the teacher or refusing to take a seat. The latest state statistics show that 43 percent of all suspensions in California were for willful defiance and more than 72 percent of those went to Latino or African American students.
I had the chance to talk to Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who wrote the legislation. He claims one of the reasons for the disproportionate effects of willful defiance on these students is that teachers and administrators lack cultural competence. “We see disproportionate levels of discipline for LGBT-identifying kids, disabled kids, as well as African American kids and Latino kids,” he said. “I think it has to do with expectations that teachers and administrators have about behavioral norms. In many instances, students may have different expectations of behavioral norms.”
I’ve seen students get singled out and punished in a classroom in cases where everyone was talking disruptively. Maybe the teacher had a bad day, but suspension is like adding insult to injury. I think sending a kid out of class for a few minutes if they’re disruptive is a good strategy and sends the message you can’t be disrespectful in a learning environment.
But being kicked off campus makes students care less about their education or give up on the teacher.
I’ve personally seen what happens to students after not being in school for five days. I can think of five friends who couldn’t recover the grades they had prior to being suspended. Most fell behind, but one of them stopped coming to school altogether. If California already has too many young people dropping out of school, then suspending someone shouldn’t be so easy.