The School Discipline Policy and School Climate Bill of Rights will help schools keep students in the classroom to access learning by ensuring schools prioritize the use of alternatives to suspensions that get to the root causes of misbehavior, particularly when minor offenses occur. Further, school climate rights support the prevention of unnecessary criminalization by clearly defining the role of police on campus and provide opportunities for students, parents and the school community to deepen their engagement and responsibility in creating a healthy, safe and supportive school environment.
Chewing gum in class, wearing a hat on school campus, talking back to a teacher; under California Education Code and LAUSD policy, all of these qualify as reasons to suspend students from school. It is called Willful Defiance and stands as one of the most arbitrary, subjective and harmful discipline practices in Los Angeles schools.
Last month, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released a damning report that brings to light the number of students suspended every year from California’s schools. Over 360,000 students were suspended in 2011-2012 alone—half were suspended for “disruptive or willful defiance.” Of course, “willful defiance” depends on whom you ask. Students are regularly suspended for such trivial infractions as being late to class or talking back to a Dean and are either sent home or forced to sit in a room for an entire day, losing valuable instruction time.
It gets worse. Despite making up only 6.5% of the student population, African American students account for 19% of all suspensions; white students make up 26% of California’s student population, but account for only 20% of suspensions. One in three Black middle school males were suspended at least once during the school year and 36% of Black secondary students were suspended at least once. Between 1973 and 2010, the suspension rate for white students remained relatively unchanged, but doubled for African American students.
So, why are Black students, namely males, being suspended at higher rates than their white or Latino counterparts? In part, because our schools do not understand or simply do not care to address the needs of Black youth. They are more likely to be labeled willfully defiant, and in much the same way, are more likely to be placed in special education for behavioral issues and subsequently trapped into remedial education. Even in instances that go beyond willful defiance like graffiti or fighting, schools find it easier to write off Black youth as “bad students” rather than taking time to understand the underlying causes of their behavior and give them appropriate support.
And there is an even deeper problem. The dominant perception of Black students, particularly males, include aggression and a propensity for violence and criminality. These sensationalized, and often stereotyped perceptions, coupled with America’s “tough on crime” paradigm, pushes schools to rely on harsh discipline policies to create a “safe” environment. However, research has shown that harsh discipline methods are counterproductive and do not make schools safer. They actually unfairly target boys and young men of color, damaging their opportunities to succeed.
FORTUNATELY, There is a movement, statewide and locally, to eliminate the use of these unfair practices and the disproportionate impact they have on Black and other students of color. On the statewide level, Assembly Bill 420 eliminates willful defiance as a justifiable reason for expulsions for K-12 and suspensions for grades K-5. For grades 6-12, the bill mandates a student cannot be suspended until the third offense in the same school year. The rationale: Schools must use alternative means to correct the behavior prior to suspension.
Locally, the Liberty Hill Foundation is spearheading the Brothers, Sons, Selves initiative, which brings together groups from across the city, including Community Coalition, Brotherhood Crusade, Inner City Struggle and the Labor Community Strategy Center. The initiative introduced the School Climate Bill of Rights Resolution. The resolution takes willful defiance off the table and pushes schools to utilize positive, pro-active discipline practices that encourage student achievement. Instead of relying primarily on suspensions to manage students, the School Climate Bill of Rights mandates the use of “Restorative Justice” as a means of determining root causes and holding students responsible for their actions while building a sense of agency to resolve issues in constructive ways.
Every day, poor Black children, especially, are exposed to excessive violence and other traumatic experiences that stem largely from pervasive concentrated poverty. At times, the only solace from these conditions is their schools. By failing to take into account the depth of their circumstances and life experiences, schools themselves often push students away from education with ineffective, punitive discipline policies that lead to low-skill, low-wage employment, intellectual idleness and far too often, incarceration.
Black leaders have been silent on this crucial issue but must be in the forefront for change. The School Climate Bill of Rights presents an opportunity to raise a collective resolve in support of rejecting dysfunctional discipline and suspension policies that harm Black students the most. We should no longer stand idly by while our children are pushed out of school unfairly, disproportionately destined to lives without vision or hope.
On May 14th, the LAUSD Board of Education will vote on the School Climate Resolution. If at all possible, be there.
For more information, contact Tonna Onyendu at 323.556.7221.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail