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Bill to bar ‘willful defiance’ in California public schools clears both houses

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A bill to bar suspension of students for low-level behavior issues known as "willful defiance" in California’s public schools through 12th grade passed both houses in the Legislature this week.

Historically in California and around the nation, willful defiance suspensions tend to be levied for low-level disruptions, such as a student wearing a hat backward, falling asleep in class, or "talking back to a teacher," and have been disproportionately directed at students of color, LGBTQ students, students who are homeless or in foster care, and those with disabilities.

The bill's author, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said the goal of the bill is to prevent kids from getting kicked out of school as punishment. 

"SB 274 is based on a simple premise: Students belong in school," Skinner said in a statement on Wednesday. "Suspending students, no matter what the age, fails to improve student behavior and greatly increases the likelihood that the student will fail classes or drop out of school completely." 

The bill, also known as "Keep Kids in School," passed the state Assembly on a vote of 61-13, and won approval in the Senate on a bipartisan 32-6 vote. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk.

This bill builds on Skinner's previous 2019 legislation, SB 419, which permanently banned willful defiance suspensions in grades TK-5 and prohibited them in grades 6-8 until 2025. 

Under this new bill, willful defiance suspensions would be barred in grades 6-12, with a sunset of July 1, 2029, in all California public schools.

In addition, under the new bill, teachers would be able to remove a student from a specific class for unruly behavior, but the student would not be suspended from school. 

Instead, it would be up to school administrators to determine appropriate and timely in-school interventions or support for the student.

The bill was sponsored by by a large coalition that includes State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, American Civil Liberties Union, California Action, Alliance for Boys and Men of Color (Co-Sponsor, Black Parallel School Board, Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE), Dolores Huerta Foundation, Disability Rights California, East Bay Community Law Center, Generation Up, Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, Public Counsel, Youth Alliance, and Youth Justice Education Clinic – Loyola Law School. It’s also supported by more than 50 additional organizations.

Research shows that willful defiance suspensions have historically targeted Black male students the most. 

According to the 2018 report "Get Out! Black Male Suspensions in California Public Schools," suspensions for willful defiance represented 21% of all suspensions of Black male students in California middle schools. And in high school, it was 26%. In all, African-American male students in California schools are three times more likely to be suspended for willful defiance than the statewide average.

In recognition of the unnecessary harm caused by willful defiance suspensions, Skinner's office said that many California school districts have eliminated them, including Oakland, San Francisco, Pasadena, during the past decade. 

And a 2019 report found that after Los Angeles Unified eliminated willful defiance suspensions in grades K-8, suspensions overall plummeted by 75%.

The bill would apply to both traditional public schools and charter schools, and would also bar schools from suspending or expelling students for being tardy or truant.

"The punishment for missing school should not be to miss more school," Sen. Skinner added. "Students, especially those with behavioral issues, need to be in school where teachers and counselors can help them succeed."

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