Beginning next July, teachers in California will no longer be allowed to suspend elementary and middle school students from school for disrupting classroom activities or defying school authorities, as the result of a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 9.
Current law already bans out-of-school suspensions in grades K-3 as a result of a 2013 law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown. But Brown held the line on extending the ban to higher grades, where by far the majority of suspensions occur, and vetoed several bills that tried to do just that.
But Newsom appears to have had no hesitation signing Senate Bill 419, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that will cover all elementary grades (K-5) and for a five-year trial period include middle school grades (sixth to eighth).
“Ending willful defiance suspensions will keep kids in school where they belong and where teachers and counselors can help them thrive,” Skinner said.
Under state law, teachers would still be allowed to suspend students from their classrooms for up to two days as long as they remained in school by participating in what is known as an “in-school” suspension program. Students would remain under school supervision where they are expected to participate in activities that address the behavior that led to their being removed from the classroom.
A principal concern of Skinner’s, and other child advocates who backed her bill, was the fact that disruption and willful defiance — vague categories that are subject to a range of interpretations — have had a disproportionate impact on African American students, males especially. When they are pushed out of school, they are more likely to come into contact with law enforcement, at times with disastrous consequences.
“No student should be set back in their education for something as minor as chewing gum or talking in class,” said Angela McNair Turner, an attorney at Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that for years has been working to reduce suspensions and expulsions from California schools. “SB 419 is a huge step forward in addressing equity in schools across the state and eliminating the school to prison pipeline for youth in grades K-8, but there are still nearly 19,000 students who were suspended for defiance in the 2017-2018 school year who will not have these protections.”
Several of the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland and San Francisco, have already abolished the use of willful defiance suspensions entirely. As a result, the number of students suspended for willful defiance and disruption has plummeted in California to one-sixth the level they were a half dozen years ago.
Based on what happened in Los Angeles, newly elected board member Jackie Goldberg suggested the law would have a similar impact across the state. “SB 419 will result in less instructional days lost due to suspensions, improved academic outcomes and school climate, and it will lead to fewer students to drop out of school and enter the juvenile justice system,” she said.