New California Law Bans School Suspensions for Defiance

Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 419 into law, which extends the current K-3 ban for suspensions for “defiant and disruptive” behavior to grades 4-8. The law suggests that “restorative justice practices, trauma-informed practices, social and emotional learning, and schoolwide positive behavior interventions and support, may be used to help pupils gain critical social and emotional skills” as a way to right the wayward student. At least the Kumbaya statute doesn’t pertain to violence, robbery and other more serious offenses … yet.

Wrongness abounds here. First, the law excuses anti-social behavior with a kiss on the wrist. Defying your teacher with no real consequence will simply lead to more-of-same, with new disruptors encouraged to join the “Let’s give Mr. Chips the finger” club. And good kids will suffer as the disruptive ones eat up valuable class time with their antics.

The impetus behind the bill appears to be race-based. While black students made up 5.6 percent of the total enrollment in California for academic year 2017-18, they accounted for 15.6 percent of total suspensions for willful defiance, according to the state education department. Of course, it goes unmentioned that black kids actually commit a disproportionate amount of the suspense-worthy offenses. Black teachers get this. A recent Fordham Institute teacher survey, showed that they, more than white teachers, feel suspensions aren’t used enough.

But school discipline, you see, like so much in education, is subject to big government meddling, emotion and social justice fads, and all too often the extremists get their way. After the Columbine murders in 1999, “zero-tolerance” policies became the new national trend-du-jour. This overreactive lurch led to outrageous consequences – like a 7-year-old Maryland boy being suspended in 2013 for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and saying, “Bang, bang.”

Then, making a U-turn, President Obama and his Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” on school discipline in 2014. The missive asserted that there was a racial component to school suspensions because blacks were far more likely to be suspended than other ethnic groups. The suggestion here, of course, is that white teachers and administrators, most of whom are white, tend to be racist. But the racial bean counters never get around to explaining why, according to one study, the racial disparity exists even in schools where black principals and staff predominate. Another study of suspension rates showed that having all-black rather than all-white teachers reduced the risk of being suspended by a mere two percentage points.

As The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley notes, the Obama administration sent school districts “guidance” letters that threatened federal action if black suspension rates weren’t reduced. “The letter stated that even if a school’s suspension policy ‘is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administrated in an evenhanded manner,’ the district could still face a federal civil-rights investigation if the policy ‘has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.’”

Broward County, Florida’s school system led the nation in promoting and implementing this big-government policy shift, serving as the exemplarfor Obama’s guidance. Broward’s efforts to end the “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline” by reducing in-school arrests for drugs, assault, and weapons charges were celebrated by social-justice and criminal-reform advocates around the country. But as Manhattan Institute fellow Max Eden writes, it was precisely this preference for social justice over safety that allowed Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, to avoid arrest in Broward County, “despite years of criminal behavior on school grounds, and countless red flags regarding his unstable and psychopathic personality.”

So what should we do? First, as one who has seen many students suspended during my stint in middle school, I can tell you that in most cases the action is useless. After a suspension, I always asked the offending students how they spent their time when they were out of school. By far, the most prevalent response was a shrug, accompanied by, “Watched TV.” Hardly cruel and unusual punishment. A better solution would be to ditch suspensions and, instead, if kid breaks the school’s rules, make him come to school early or stay late, or possibly expose him to some lectures on Saturday morning. Perhaps then, flipping off the English teacher may lose some of its joyous luster. And importantly, any criminal student behavior should involve law enforcement.

But more than anything, the way forward must be local. Very local. Let each school – administration, teachers and parents – figure out how to handle behavior problems. A school district could help by setting down some loose guidelines. But the state and most definitely the feds need to stay far out of it. A dust up between a teen and a teacher in Idaho should not have to be subject to the whims of social justice warriors and government bureaucrats three time zones away.

 *   *   *

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center.