The ban on willful defiance suspensions has led to improved campus climate overall, school officials and students say. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

Long before California banned suspensions for “willful defiance” or disruption of school activities in K-8 classrooms, Los Angeles Unified embarked on an even more ambitious goal: eliminate defiance suspensions entirely.

Six years after it implemented the policy, L.A. Unified officials, advocates and students say they’ve seen dramatic improvements in campus culture at many schools, providing lessons for California as it attempts to reshape school discipline across the state.

Since implementing the policy, L.A. Unified has seen a 75 percent drop in suspensions across all categories and a narrowing of racial disparities among students who are suspended.

In September, Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 419, which bars schools from suspending students in kindergarten through 8th grade for willful defiance — defying teachers and other school staff, or disrupting school activities. The ban will go into effect in July and extends one that was already in place for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

In 2013, the L.A. Unified Board of Education banned willful defiance suspensions for all students, garnering national headlines and praise from social justice groups.

The board’s rationale was that willful defiance was a vague term disproportionately applied to African-American and Latino students, and that suspending students out-of-school only tends to worsen behavior, not improve it.

Under the new policy, schools began referring students to counseling and instituting what are called “restorative practices” — a broad set of strategies meant to improve students’ relationships with school staff and peers.

The goal is to keep students in school and improve campus climate overall. When a student disrupts class, he or she is now usually sent to a school counselor instead of home.

The policy was part of a wider effort to overhaul discipline in the nation’s second-largest school district. Prior to the suspension ban, the district implemented an approach known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and in 2015 expanded its restorative practices protocol.

“It’s not perfect, and it’s taken a lot of time and work, but we’re at a place where the vast majority of our schools say they love this system,” said Tanya Franklin, senior director at Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that works with district schools to improve student achievement. “What it’s done is force the conversation.”

Mariachi is one of dozens of activities offered at Mendez High in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Las Fotos Project/Mendez High, via EdSource)

Mendez High, a district school that opened in 2009 in the primarily Latino, low-income Boyle Heights neighborhood, has embraced discipline reform from the outset. As the school has grown, staff have added counseling and restorative practices coupled with extensive extra-curricular activities, and seen fewer behavior problems across all categories.

Last year, only two students out of 1,151 enrolled in the school were suspended, both for fighting. None were expelled.

“We had to establish a culture,” said Emily Grijalva, restorative justice coordinator at Mendez. “We had to make school someplace students wanted to be. So we tried to find as many opportunities as we could for students to be engaged. We figured that if they’re engaged, they’re more likely to come to school and have a positive experience.”

On the discipline front, the school eliminated random searches, installed an anonymous tip line, trained most of the staff in restorative practices and expanded counseling services. If a student disrupts class, they receive one-on-one counseling to determine the cause of the problem.

Paired with that is a lively array of activities for students. Mariachi, drum line, theater, photography, Mexican dance, cross-country and fine arts are among the offerings. Students wanted a football team, so staff organized a football team, even though the campus lacks a field (they rent a field from a nearby school). Students also requested a swim team, so staff organized a swim team at the local YMCA. Next fall the school is opening a wellness center that will include medical, dental and mental health services.

Mendez High 11th-grader Sandra Canales can vouch for the new system. As a freshman, she was often in trouble for fighting and missing class, but then altered her behavior after meetings with counseling staff.

“They just talked to me, said it was time for me to start thinking about college, time to move on from whatever issue I was upset about. Basically, time to grow up,” she said. “At this school they give you chances. They talk to you. They make you see things differently.”

Sandra said she now enjoys school, and plans to go to community college after graduation and study to become a veterinarian. Mendez’s approach to discipline didn’t just change Sandra’s trajectory, it’s affected the whole school, she said. Most students are involved in extra-curricular activities, and overall morale is high, she said.

“It’s just a calm place to be,” she said. “Everyone’s happy to be here. People are friendly. There’s just less drama.”

Although L.A. Unified’s goal was to eliminate defiance suspensions entirely, some schools have found it’s still occasionally necessary. Last year, 209 students were sent home for willful defiance.

For now, the district is not required to eliminate its defiance suspensions because the ban is a policy, not a law, according to Dan Sackheim, consultant to the California Department of Education. When the state law goes into effect in July, the district will have to eliminate those suspensions completely, at least through the middle school grades.

Nonetheless, the district’s discipline overhaul has had a noteworthy positive impact on campus culture, educators and advocates said. At nearly all schools, the suspension rates for all categories — including fighting, weapons and drug possession — have decreased dramatically. From 2011-12 to 2017-18, the number of students suspended in all categories dropped 75 percent.

The policy has also lessened, at least somewhat, the racial disparities among students who are suspended, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Latino students are now suspended at similar rates as their white and Asian peers, although African-American students are still suspended at a higher rate than white students. That gap has narrowed, though, the study found.

“LAUSD has made tremendous progress so far in reducing suspension gaps between black and white students and special education and non-special education students,” said the study’s lead author, Ayesha Hashim.

At Los Angeles Unified, advocates and some educators said that the decline in suspensions across all categories is proof that counseling students — and not sending them home — is a better way to handle school discipline and improve campus climate overall.

“LAUSD is heading in the right direction,” said Maisie Chin, executive director of Community Asset Development Re-defining Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for families in south Los Angeles public schools.

But she cautioned that numbers alone don’t tell the whole story of a school’s culture, and the shift to restorative practices is far from complete at many schools. Across the district, African-American students are still disciplined at disproportionately high rates, and the expulsion rate for all students remains unchanged at .02 percent.

“Keeping kids in school by not pushing them out through suspension is just the first step to doing things differently with them, especially when it comes to behavioral support,” she said. “We have to acknowledge that handling defiance in the classroom successfully is a much longer game beyond situational interventions.”

Despite some initial pushback, teachers say they’ve come to appreciate the change in discipline policy. Staff training, an increase in counselors and input from teachers and students has made the difference, said Daniel Barnhart, vice president of secondary schools for the United Teachers Los Angeles, the main union in the district.

Because of the investment in discipline alternatives, teachers say have more options when trying to help students with behavior problems, he said.

“In most cases, teachers and school staff see the connection between suspensions and the school-to-prison pipeline, and realize that taking a different approach to discipline is a moral necessity,” he said. “But there’s no short-cut. Schools need buy-in from students, families, teachers, staff and the community for it to work.”

At Roosevelt High, discipline reform has improved campus climate overall but the transition has not been easy, said Javier Cid, dean of students and an alumnus of the school.

In essence, some students have difficulties that are complex and long-standing, and a handful of sessions with a school counselor cannot cure every issue, he said.

“If a kid drops the f-bomb, the n-word, vapes in class, it can hurt morale for everyone else in the classroom,” he said. “Teachers want us to do more. I agree, but it’s not so easy. The parents are often unable to help. We want to keep kids in school, but we need to look out for the kids who aren’t causing problems, too. It’s sometimes hard to find a balance.”

Still, suspensions in all categories have dropped, and administrators at the 1,400-student school haven’t expelled a student in more than two years.

The key, Cid said, has been an expanded counseling staff, partnerships with community groups and taking steps to improve the general mood on campus, such as playing music at lunchtime.

In addition to the regular guidance counselors, the school has a restorative justice teacher, a counselor who addresses chronic absenteeism, a psychologist, social worker, probation officer and counselor to help students returning from juvenile detention.

The school also handles day-to-day discipline differently than it did when Cid was a student there in the 1980s.

“The dean’s office used to be a place no one wanted to go,” he said. “Now, instead of yelling at kids, it’s ‘How can I help? How’re you doing?’ We listen to them. … Some people say all this is smoke and mirrors, but I think it’s important. We need to show we care. They need to know that school is a safe place.”

Story originally published by EdSource.