Banning suspensions and expulsions for ‘willful defiance’ is the wrong way to help students

I would like to believe that well-intentioned people who see a problem but choose a worse solution can eventually change their minds.

Senate Bill 274, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would extend a ban on suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” in California’s public middle schools and high schools. Current law permanently bans these actions against students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and for the older students through 2025. SB 274 would make that ban permanent.

The bill and all the debate around it seem to be focused on the various interventions and accommodations for the students who disrupt classes. It appears that no one is primarily concerned about all the other kids in the classrooms.

Advocates of “restorative practices” and “harm reduction” policies instead of suspension or expulsion cite the racial and ethnic composition of the at-risk population of students, claiming discrimination. But there’s silence about the very similar racial and ethnic composition of the population of students in those same schools, the children who are victimized by the recurring disruption of their education.

Imagine what the schools would look like if the needs of those kids were prioritized.

Instead of assigning teachers an endless protocol of extra tasks to deal with students who are willfully defiant — de-escalation, talking quietly or writing notes to the student, removing the student to a separate classroom — the school district would protect both teachers and students who are trying to engage in educational activities. The district would reasonably enforce a policy of suspensions and expulsions for willful defiance and other misconduct, not because it’s best for the person being suspended or expelled, but because it’s best for the community of students who are entitled to an education and who deserve the full, uninterrupted attention of their teachers. And also because teachers are entitled to a safe workplace where they can teach, without being expected to simultaneously operate an improvised juvenile justice system in every classroom.

While it may be true that a credible threat of suspension or expulsion could be a positive motivating factor for some troubled students, that’s not the argument I’m making. I’m arguing that we should be focusing on the need to provide a quality education to all children in California, and that starts with providing a safe, nurturing environment in which they can learn without disruption. “Willful defiance” by another student in the classroom can be scary and intimidating, certainly distracting, and we should be protecting children who are in school to learn.

California has a system of continuation education that serves students ages 16 to 18 who are “deemed at risk of not completing their education,” as described on the website of the California Department of Education. In the 2021-22 school year, there were 432 continuation high schools in operation statewide, with nearly 46,000 students attending.

Students enrolled in these schools “often are behind in high school credits.” Continuation programs offer flexibility for students who are behind because they have jobs or family obligations. In addition to academic courses, continuation education offers occupational and career programs as well as job placement and apprenticeships.

Could continuation education be expanded to provide educational opportunities for younger students, too?

In April 2008, a report on California continuation high schools was released as part of the California Alternative Education Research Project conducted jointly by the Gardner Center at Stanford University, the National Center for Urban School Transformation at San Diego State University, and WestEd. “Since 1965,” it explains, “state law has mandated that most school districts enrolling over 100 12th grade students make available a continuation program or school that provides an alternative route to the high school diploma for youth vulnerable to academic or behavioral failure.”

It’s not a new problem.

The researchers cite data revealing that students in continuation schools tend to be “a highly vulnerable population characterized by multiple risk behaviors and other nonacademic learning barriers.” Some are living in foster homes. Some have moved frequently with their families. Some have substance abuse problems.

Expanding the continuation schools may be one solution, a way to focus state resources, programs and services on the students who need extra attention and assistance.

SB 274 is not a solution for anybody.

Write and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley