A California law aiming to reduce suspensions and expulsions appears to be achieving its aims, but critics say more needs to be done to properly address students’ behavioral issues.
California Assembly Bill 420 became effective Jan. 1, 2015, limits discipline for ‘willful defiance’ violations, eliminating suspension for young children (kindergarten to third grade) and prohibiting expulsion for certain infractions including talking back, dress code and failure to have school materials.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson proudly announced in a report that suspensions have been reduced by 46 percent (327,857 fewer suspensions) and expulsions were down by 42 percent (about 4,100) students, according to a report on the California Department of Education website.
“Under Torlakson’s leadership, CDE has initiated forums and workshops to make districts, administrators, and teachers aware of successful alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, including ‘restorative justice’ programs that help students understand the nature and consequences of their actions,” the report said.
Restorative justice and Positive Behavior Intervention Support are meant to address students’ behavior problems rather than simply removing them from campus, as research shows that being suspended can make dropping out five times more likely as well as increasing the odds of tangling with the juvenile justice system. Additionally, teachers and administrators had been meting out harsher penalties to black and Latino students for similar offenses committed by white students, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.
However, in practice, many teachers are saying they aren’t being given adequate training, support and resources to implement those programs. California Teacher’s Association members advocate for ‘adequate and appropriate funding, training and support’, said spokesperson Cynthia Menzel in an email.
Former California Assembly Member Roger Dickinson, author of the bill, said many districts are going even further than the law’s requirements – and that, in fact, the law reflects current trends in education.
The law gained Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature by the inclusion of a sunset provision that puts an end to its mandates July 1, 2018 unless another statute extends the date. California Sen. Nancy Skinner has authored a bill that would extend and expand AB 420’s provisions, but it has not yet reached the governor’s desk.
Although the ideals embodied by the law have widespread support in the education community, some teachers feel that in application, it is keeping disruptive students in school without addressing their behaviors.
Brenda Borge, president of the Natomas Teachers Association, said not all the elements are in place for restorative justice and Positive Behavior Intervention Support to be successful.
“I think some of these trends have made schools less safe,” she said, adding she would like to see more campus security, counselors, psychologists and social workers – which is not something provided for in the law.
Although the law was not meant to prohibit the suspension or expulsion of students for serious infractions involving violence, harassment or drugs, Borge said she felt that the administration was too zealous in trying to retain disruptive students to improve its image.
However, Natomas Unified School District Jim Sanders said the statistics don’t support Borge’s assertion.
In fact, he said, suspension and expulsion rates there are slightly higher now than they were the year before AB 420 passed, going from about 5.7 percent then to 5.8 currently.
“Safety is our top priority – (disruptive students) are going to be disciplined and statistics will bear that out,” Sanders said. “…We realize more work needs to be done in things like restorative justice and (Positive Behavior Intervention Support). We would never turn a blind eye to students who are misbehaving – we suspend and we expel and will continue to do so.”