Bill to Ban ‘Willful Defiance’ School Suspensions Authored by CA State Senator Nancy Skinner

Senator Nancy Skinner at a Justice Collaborative event in San Francisco in March 2020

By Cynthia Hoang-Duong and Destiny Gurrola

BERKELEY, CA – East Bay State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) announced her SB 274 legislation late last week, which would ban the practice of suspending students for minor behavior issues — or “willful defiance” — in public and charter schools in California, grades TK-12.

In a prepared statement, Skinner claimed, “SB 274 puts the needs of students first. Instead of kicking them out of school, we owe it to students to figure out what’s causing them to act out and help them fix it.”

Expanding on her SB 419 bill in 2019 which permanently eliminated suspensions of willful defiance of students in grades TK-5 and grades 6-8 until 2025, the latest bill seeks to bar the same class of suspensions but for all grades in California schools.

Defined as behaviors that disrupt school activities or defy teachers, Skinner said willful defiance subjectively encompasses behaviors such as a student refusing to remove a hat or hoodie in class.

Historically, this type of suspension has disproportionately affected students of color, particularly Black male students, LGBTQ students, homeless or foster students, and disabled students.

The press release cited the “Get Out! Black Male Suspensions in California Public Schools” 2018 report which found that in California middle schools, 21 percent of the total suspensions of Black male students were for willful defiance.

This percentage increased to 26 percent for California high schools. The report also concluded that compared to the state’s average suspension for willful defiance, African American male students were three times as likely to be suspended for these reasons.

In fact, bill proponents state over the years, some school districts in California, such as Los Angeles, Azusa, Oakland, Pasadena and San Francisco unified school districts, have already ended this practice because of needless harm to students.

According to a 2019 report, Los Angeles Unified’s ban — the first school district to do so — of willful defiance suspensions in grades K-9 effectively reduced suspensions by 75 percent.

In addition to willful defiance, the bill prohibits California schools from punishing tardy and truant students by the means of suspension or expulsion.

Arguing for this ban, Skinner maintained, “The punishment for missing school should not be to miss more school. Students, especially those with behavioral issues, need to be in school where teachers and counselors can help them succeed.”

Because students suspended even once in 9th grade have a doubled risk of dropping out, based on “Sent Home and Put Off-Track,” a John Hopkins University study in 2014, the bill ultimately aims to lower California’s dropout rate.

As Skinner explained, “SB 274 is based on a simple premise: Students belong in school. Suspending youth for low-level behavior issues leads to significant harm, including learning loss and a higher likelihood that affected students will drop out of school completely.”

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